By Cesar Luis Menotti
The overall level of play in the group round of the ongoing Copa America has not been good. It can never be good when teams like Brazil and Uruguay do not play well and are eliminated. Ahead of the tournament, I had mentioned those two sides among the three candidates to lift the trophy, along with Argentina. Now there is only one left, and I think they stand before a clear chance. I think Argentina are more than ever the favourites to win this edition of the Copa America. One step below I see Colombia and Mexico, the most serious among the teams that I would define as protagonists.
Argentina are a team with good players, a few very good players and one man who is the world’s best player, Lionel Messi. Manager Gerardo Martino was right to let him rest, and now I think he is going to be in good form for the quarter-finals. Messi can give a significant boost in quality to any team.
I understand what Diego Maradona said about Messi and his leadership ability. I think he said it in a context. Maradona sometimes thinks leadership is about a certain boldness, a certain presence. There is also a cultural difference. Diego was more of a neighbourhood player, a different lifestyle. Messi grew up in Barcelona next to fantastic players and he has been living there since he was 13. But I think Messi has more than enough character as a player. I do not know him off the pitch, but as a player he as more than enough, because a footballer’s character does not just show up in competitive actions but also in his knowledge. Messi has grown a lot in terms of his knowledge of the game, and that allows him to be a leader, because he can take charge with the ball when that is appropriate and also give a back pass or assist when he should do that instead. He has grown year after year, gradually adding virtues to his massive natural talent. Now, of course, he is not like Diego in the changing-rooms, with his shouts and his words of encouragement. But he has never had the opportunity to become that man, because he grew up in teams where everyone was a great player.
Venezuela, Argentina’s rivals in the quarter-finals, have grown and played teams like Uruguay and Mexico on an equal footing. They may be able to give Argentina a run for their money, but it would really be a miracle for them to be able to advance to the semi-finals. The game between Mexico and Chile is another interesting clash. I think the change of manager caused some confusion in Chile, I have the impression that they have more doubts as a team. Mexico have had several changes of manager too, but they have been among the best teams in this tournament. And their fans need a title, they will no longer be satisfied with just being protagonists.
The game Colombia-Peru is also attractive. Peru have a determination to play well that is based on their manager’s ideas. They have improved an awful lot, and they take the risk of getting away from their own goal, they do not drop too far back. Colombia in turn are in a very special situation. They have huge individual quality, with experienced players who have been together for a long time. But sometimes they look like a team that is strategically not well, because they do not become aggressive and dominant when they should and they also fail to defend well. Still, they have what it takes to reach the final.
Finally there is the United States versus Ecuador, another clash with an uncertain result. Ecuador are the side that has grown the most and stuck the most to an idea of play, even before the World Cup qualifiers started. And the United States may not have outstanding stars, but they are playing at home and they have a great manager like Juergen Klinsmann, who has been putting forward a well-defined style of play for a long time.
I would also like to briefly discuss Brazil’s crisis, which is a recurring theme. It is true that their match against Peru had that controversial handball, but it is also the case that over 90 minutes they did not manage to put together two good advances. Brazil’s situation is very sad. I have been a great admirer of their game. I have lived there and played there and I was once friends with Rivelino, Tostao and Zito. I do not know how they feel about this, but I would tell Brazilians to take the same path again, to draw inspiration from Caetano Veloso and their great poets, to look at Rio de Janeiro’s beaches and start dreaming again about Pele, because they have lost their identity in a way that seems inconceivable. And I would not want to blame anyone in particular, because I do not think this is Carlos Dunga’s responsibility. This has been in the making for a long time in Brazil.