What is the Copa America?

It contains thrilling finals, shock defeats, comeback victories and the emergence of world calibre players – the Copa America can make many a justifiable boast.

Lionel Messi claimed his first major international title in 2021. The world watched open mouthed when Maradona put on a display of talent, trickery and footballing genius for spectators during the 1989 tournament and it winced when Argentina’s Martin Palermo missed three penalties in one game. The Copa America deserves all the accolades that it receives – but what is it?  

The Copa America literally translates to the America Cup. Pitting the most prominent South American nations against one another, it is an iconic tournament that draws in football fans from around the world. The Copa America is organised by the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), which is one of the six FIFA Confederations. 

Historical Evolution 

The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) is the oldest confederation in the world. CONMEBOL was actually first conceived in the run-up to the launch of the inaugural Copa America in 1916. 

Prior to the first ever competition taking place, the four competing nations (Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay) met to create a governing body in order to organise and administer the event in future years. 

During this seemingly innocuous meeting the concept of a confederation was realised and the South American nations did what no other group of nations had done before – formed a footballing confederation. In the following years, six more South American nations joined: Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia and finally Venezuela. Today, there are ten teams in total.

The first ever Copa de America, known then as the South American Football Championship or Campeonato Sudamericano de Fútbol in Spanish and Campeonato Sul-Americano de Futebol in Portuguese, took place in 1916. At that time it was an annual tournament but in 1927 it moved it to biannual and continued this way until 2001. At that point it was held every three or four years. However, in 2007, to avoid clashing with the FIFA World Cup, the Copa America moved to a quadrennial Cup. 

The ten member nations of the CONMEBOL compete against one another, with two additional national sides being invited each time. It is the world’s oldest, still running competition and attracts global audiences of nearly ten million, making it the third most watched football tournament in the world. 

The Copa America Cup has drawn in ever increasing audiences in recent years. Viewers are treated to exciting, high-calibre football infused with vicious rivalries, combining to create a tournament that grips and exhilarates fans. 

The most recent tournament in 2019, was subject to some drama before the tournament even began. The host country was changed three times and this brought with it threats of boycotts and huge public dissatisfaction. The chaos was ultimately generated by COVID related issues in the original host countries, Argentina and Columbia. Columbia was stripped of the right first and subsequently, so was Argentina. Finally, the honour was bestowed on Brazil, who threatened to boycott the tournament in response. 

But, there have been some world class moments there too. 1997 saw the emergence of one Ronaldo Lúis Nazário de Lima on the international stage. His footballing brilliance saw the Brazilian team secure their sixth Copa de America title and with it secure his place as a global superstar.  

The most recent 2021 tournament saw Lionel Messi claim his first ever international title on the world stage, beating Brazil 1-0 in the final. Audiences for this game totalled 3.5 million on Univision. And 2021 was not the only time Messi’s performance in the Copa Cup. In 2016, in a game against Panama he left audiences mesmerised when he scored a hat-trick in 30 minutes. Argentina won 5 – 0. 

And, in 2007, formidable goals by Julio Baptista and Dani Alves – and an additional own goal by the Argentinian captain, Roberto Ayala saw Brazil secure a win in the final against fiercest rivals, Argentina. Argentina saw to a goalless conclusion and the antagonism between the two teams escalated to a new peak. 

And, whilst it’s true that most fans tend to regard the pinnacle of footballing excellence to be spread across the European teams, South America can lay claim to a large percentage of top-quality teams too. Pioneering endeavours in 1916 to create the first ever international tournament and in turn, the first ever Confederation, demonstrates their heady willingness to passionately put football at the centre of everything.    

Format and Teams 

Whilst the structure of the competition has changed over the years, the format for the up and coming 2024 tournament has been agreed. 

The Copa de America 2024 will start with four groups of four teams. The top two teams at the end of the first round of games will progress to the knock-out stages. 

Each one of the ten CONMEBOL members are automatically granted entry. The remaining six teams are members of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) and qualified for entry through the CONCACAF Nations League.

Both Argentina and Uruguay have claimed the most trophies, with fifteen each. Eight of the other ten CONMEBOL nations have won at least once in the tournament’s hundred year history and Brazil has won nine times. 

It’s fair to say that the tournament induces serious rivalries that span this history of the tournament. Perhaps most notably, Argentina and Brazil. This pair of colossal footballing giants could be easily regarded as the fiercest rivals in the world – games between these two are battles for ultimate supremacy. Geographical neighbours and footballing nemesis’s – these nations go toe-to-toe in skill meaning the rivalry runs deep. Argentina currently hold 6 more Copa Cup titles than Brazil so it’s fair to say the rivalry will not diminish soon. 

Winning the Copa Cup generates unlimited and long-lasting national pride. As its global audience continues to swell, so will the glory and prestige for the winning side. 

Cultural Impact and Legacy

Many South Americans would argue that the Copa de America is not merely a tournament, it’s a public display of the passion, resilience and raw talent of the continent’s finest footballers. The Winner’s List is a proud roll call of teams and individual players who have showcased South American footballing talent and proved themselves giants among the very best of men. 

The Copa de America, whilst rich in rivalry and competition, is also an opportunity for geographically close nations to come together and celebrate their brilliance. National pride, passion and an innate love of the most beautiful game is released during the Copa de America for each of the involved teams. 

The Copa Cup is a place where dreams are realised and the world stops to watch the glory of South American football. The chaos and controversy that often takes place off the pitch is overtaken by the sporting brilliance that presides on it. 

The world now waits with bated breath for the approaching 2024 Copa de America and the rivalries, revelry and footballing reverence it will induce. Bring it on!

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