Devalued Copa America starts in Colombia

Nearly all the teams will be missing their top players and Argentina may be absent altogether from a tournament which many suspect is being held purely for the benefit of sponsors and Colombian politicians.
South America’s World Cup qualifying competition, in which the ten teams play each other twice over an 18-month period and in which the winners are logically considered the best team on the continent, has made the Copa a footballing irrelevance.
As the qualifiers also reward the top four sides with a place at the World Cup, all teams give them full priority and use the Copa America as a laboratory to test their younger players.
Argentina have not sent their top team to the Copa since 1995, while others have flitted between full-strength and reserve sides according to their whims.
Brazilians Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Romario will be missing, all of Uruguay’s first choice players will be on holiday, Paraguay’s flamboyant captain Jose Luis Chilavert will be elsewhere and even Colombia’s own stars have been rested.
But this has not prevented a never-ending tug-of-war between politicians, officials and sponsors leading to an extraordinary sequence of decisions about the tournament in the last six weeks.

The South American Football Confederation (CSF) twice reconfirmed Colombia as hosts after a spate of bombs added to existing worries about sending teams to a country riddled with civil war, kidnappings and drug trafficking.
On the second occasion, Colombia sent a heavyweight delegation led by Pastrana and including mayors of host cities and security officials to Asuncion to pressurise the CSF.
Pastrana has made a successful Copa America a central part of his attempts to end the country’s 37-year-old civil war which has killed 10,000 people in the past decade alone.
But on June 28, the CSF decided to move the competition to another venue after leading local official Hernan Mejia Campuzano was kidnapped on a rural highway.
The decision led to furious Colombian protests, and when Campuzano was released, the CSF reinstated Colombia as hosts but decided to hold the competition in 2002.
This angered Brazilian company Traffic, which had bought and re-sold television rights and stood to lose millions. And after intense lobbying, the CSF on Thursday decided at only six days’ notice to start the competition on its original date.
“There’s a painful situation we have to recognise and that is that whoever pays the cash, lays down the conditions,” Colombia’s interior minister Armado Estrada said.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking official at the Colombian Federation said: “Traffic imposed the Copa.”

This set the countries scrambling to form teams in only six days. Canada, due to play as guests, pulled out and were replaced by Costa Rica, while Argentina at first said they would not play, then said they would decide on Tuesday evening – 24 hours before the Copa begins.
European champions Bayern Munich threw another spanner in the works by refusing to release Brazil’s Elber and Peru’s Claudio Pizarro, because they did not consider their safety to be guaranteed.
Pastrana, however, was jubilant. “This is the cup of peace,” he said.
He then invited fans to come to the Copa, which was somewhat ironic as supporters were clearly not in the equation as directors chopped and changed dates and venues on an almost daily basis.
The most interesting aspect of the football itself will be to see whether Brazil, who have won the last two Copa America tournaments, can end a run of five matches without a win.
Brazil face Peru, Paraguay and Mexico in group B, to be played in Cali.
Colombia take on Venezuela, Chile and Ecuador in group A, based in the steamy Caribbean port of Barranquilla, while group C consists of Costa Rica, Uruguay and Bolivia in Medellin.
Argentina will be added to the group it they decide to play.