The 2011 Campeonato Sudamericano Copa América, a quadrennial soccer competition between the best national teams of South America, begins tomorrow. The Copa America, as it is popularly known, is one of the sport’s most prestigious international tournaments, outranked only by the FIFA World Cup. The opening match features hosts Argentina against underdogs Bolivia at 9:45 PM local time (8:45 US/Eastern) in the small city of La Plata, outside Buenos Aires.
This year, Argentina is experiencing more than the usual pre-match jitters. Last Sunday, the country’s most successful club, River Plate, were relegated to the second division after losing a play-off match against minnows Belgrano. It’s as if the New York Yankees were forced to play Minor League Triple-A ball after a poor season in the Majors. But that’s how soccer works. Despite “Los Millionarios'” thirty-three previous domestic championships, a few lousy years were enough to send them packing to the “B” division (in Argentina, relegation is based on a team’s results from the past three years. Most other leagues relegate teams based on their performance in a single season)
River’s fans reacted with outrage, storming the field and tearing the seats out of the stands. Within an hour, the chaos had spilled out of the ruined stadium. Angry crowds ran riot through the streets of Buenos Aires, burning cars, looting stores and fighting pitched battles with riot police. The Washington Post reported 89 injured and 55 arrests.
No one wants to see a repeat of this catastrophe in La Plata. So the pressure is on the hosts to win, especially given that Bolivia inflicted a humiliating 6-1 defeat on Argentina the last time these two teams met in April, 2009. But that was in the oppressive altitude of La Paz (elevation: 3640 meters), where Argentina’s players huffed and puffed but couldn’t keep up with the acclimatized Bolivians in the paper thin air. La Plata is at sea level and Argentina’s squad of superstars should have no trouble beating their northern neighbors. Bolivia don’t have a single player in a major European league.
Argentina, 4-3-3: Sergio Romero (AZ Alkmaar); Javier Zanetti (Internazionale Milan), Nicolas Burdisso (Roma), Marcos Rojo (Spartak Moscow); Esteban Cambiasso (Internazionale Milan), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Ever Banega (Valencia); Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli).
Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about this Bolivian side to predict a line-up. They often play an old-fashioned 3-4-3 formation with attacking wingers. Goalkeeper Carlos Arias (Maccabi Netanya), midfielder Nacho Garcia (Bolivar) and young striker Marcelo Martins (Shaktar Donetsk) will be key to their team’s hopes of a strong performance.
Prediction: Argentina 3 – Bolivia 0
The game will be streamed live on http://www.youtube.com/user/copaamerica at 8:45 PM (Boston time)