The final countdown to the Copa America Centenario will begin here Sunday when the draw for the tournament takes place with officials anxious to turn the page on a year of scandal.
The biggest football tournament to be staged in the United States since the 1994 World Cup features all 10 teams from South America and six from the CONCACAF region in a one-off edition to mark the Copa America’s Centenary.
Ten US cities will play host to the extravaganza, the first time the Copa America has been staged outside South America in its 100-year history.
The United States — one of four seeded teams along with Brazil, Argentina and Mexico — kick off the tournament on June 3 at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, with the final to take place in New Jersey on June 26.
The remaining 12 teams are divided into three pots with Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Ecuador lurking in Pot Two; Costa Rica Haiti, Jamaica and Panama in Pot Three and Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Paraguay in Pot Four.
In theory, the tournament should see the cream of the world’s footballing talent in action, with the Barcelona trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez all potentially on duty along with the likes of Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez and Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez.
– Arduous schedule -However, Messi’s participation may be complicated by the fact that he is due to stand trial in Spain for tax fraud from May 31-June 3, just three days before Argentina’s opening Group D match on June 6.
If Messi plays, it will be the FIFA World Footballer of the Year’s third consecutive summer of tournament football, following the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America in Chile.
Barcelona teammate Neymar faces an even more arduous schedule.
The 24-year-old striker, who played in the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup and last year’s Copa America, faces a fourth consecutive tournament — and has reportedly indicated he wants to play in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Yet Uruguayan striker Suarez will arrive in the United States relatively fresh. Suarez missed last year’s Copa America as he remained banned for his infamous 2014 World Cup bite on Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini.
Sunday’s draw for the June 3-26 tournament takes place at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom starting at 7.30pm local time (0030 GMT Monday), with Argentina legend Mario Kempes, Colombian former international Carlos Valderrama, Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and former American defender Alexi Lalas all officiating.
The tournament is taking place against the backdrop of a year of tumult for football in South America and the CONCACAF region, which groups Central America, North America and the Caribbean.
Several high-ranking officials from South America’s governing body CONMEBOL and CONCACAF have been indicted in the US-led corruption investigation that ultimately led to the downfall of global soccer chief Sepp Blatter.
According to US investigators, business deals surrounding the Copa America Centenario had served to generate millions of dollars in bribes for officials implicated in the corruption scandal.
The swirl of sleaze surrounding the tournament’s inception had left it in doubt before officials finally confirmed it would go ahead as scheduled.