1. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
And now for my next trick – I’ll predict the winner of the 2010 Grand National. Identifying Messi as one to watch the Copa America is about as original as Dennis Leary’s standout up act, but hear me out. In the colours of Barca, the regularity of Messi’s slaloming, physics-mocking dribbles almost renders breath-taking creativity dull and boring. When he picks up the ball, there’s the expectation that in a couple of seconds you’ll be gasping in disbelief. For the national side, it’s a very different story and his lack of success with Argentina is surely the last remaining barrier to him being universally considered the greatest of all time.
Ever the smug shitebag, Pele has been using the national team disappointment as a stick to bash him with. After watching Santos winning the Copa Libertadores and quite possibly overindulging on the free booze, football’s most insecure legend said “I hope Neymar doesn’t end up like Messi, who plays so well for his club but does nothing for his country”. Maybe there’s an element of patriotic mind games going on from Pele, but that credits Pele with a level of intelligence rarely in evidence through his history of predictions that make Mystic Meg look genuinely detailed and accurate and not just an actress with a wig and bad make-up.
Even allowing for the standard out of hand dismissal of Pele’s idiotic comments that conveniently overlook Messi’s age, Olympic Gold Medal and the fact he was managed by Maradona for a couple of years, the pressure on Messi to deliver for Argentina is immense. With home advantage, the Albicelestes are expected to win and Messi is expected to be the reason for it. Pele’s comments are especially moronic because Messi has played well for Argentina, but finds it more difficult to thrive in a team that’s not one of the best ever assembled in the history of football. For his country, he doesn’t have Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets beavering away in midfield and he’s regularly forced to come deep to receive the ball. As good as he is, beating 7 players and scoring every single time isn’t possible, so he hasn’t hit the heights of his club form. Winning the tournament is important for Argentina, but avoiding a third successive defeat to Brazil in the final is essential and showing signs of building a more cohesive team towards the 2014 World Cup would be a welcome bonus.
2. Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
He’s being painted as the natural successor to Cristiano Ronaldo at Man Utd in some quarters and that’s mainly down to his penchant for multiple pointless stepovers because being short, not especially physical and having no aerial threat, he lacks three of the components that went towards making it possible to appreciate Ronaldo despite all his cheating and diva tendencies. It looks like the Dark Lord of Old Trafford is going to miss out on Sanchez and United fans can breathe a sigh of relief. With Barcelona in pursuit and Man City doing their usual thing of completely distorting the market, it looks like it’s going to take upwards of £40 million to prise him away from Udinese.
The Chilean has genuine ability, but is he worth that much? He’s been fantastic for Udinese for a couple of seasons, but the underlying suspicion about the lack of quality in the Italian top flight makes that form as reliable as Simon Cowell telling you you’re guaranteed a job on X Factor USA. In fairness Sanchez did well as part of a Chile team who performed admirably at last year’s World Cup, but then again Maniche was one of the best players at the 2006 World Cup and the only time anything approaching 40 million pounds was being mentioned in relation to him was when discussing his weight.
With Sanchez in form, Chile will think they have a chance of a semi-final and – if optimism takes a feverish hold and Sanchez dives for enough free-kicks in dangerous areas – possibly even winning their first continental title. They’ve got a handy enough draw. Uruguay are the major challenge, but Peru and Mexico are extremely beatable. You might think ‘What? After winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup last week, Mexico have a great chance. Aidan you’re lovably insane’ but you should know that after beating their geographical rivals, they’ve jettisoned most of their star players and the 23 man squad that heads for Argentina has a grand total of 91 caps between them with 45 of those belonging to Giovanni Dos Santos on his own.
3. Falcao (Colombia)
Never has a goal scored in the Europa League been worth so much to so few. His winning goal in the final landed Porto their first European trophy since the Mourinho era, convinced Roman Abramovich to part with a wad of cash for the services of Andre Villas-Boas and has more than likely persuaded plenty of clubs that Falcao is worth a hugely inflated transfer fee and whopper contract in return for a good to middling goalscoring record in a weak league. With 16 goals from 11 games in all competitions, the Colombian finished the season like an express train with no brakes and his goal in Dublin gave plenty of pundits the perfect opportunity to look like they know what they’re talking about by looking knowledgeable and saying something along the lines of ‘I’ve known about this boy for a long time’.
Chelsea and Real Madrid are amongst the clubs his agent is saying are in the hunt for him, but his goalscoring record – particularly looking back beyond the season just gone – has more holes in it than a king size packet of Polo’s. From what I can cobble together from various dubious sources, he currently weighs in at the ‘one goal every other game’ tally that seems to be generally acknowledged as being acceptable, but the fact that most of that comes largely from his time at Porto where at most you’re expected to face 2 other quality teams per season takes the gloss off it somewhat. It’s harsh to call him the Darius Vassell of Colombia, but his international strike-rate of 1 goal every 4 games even makes the former Aston Villa and current Leicester striker look prolific.
The Copa America will give us a better look at the striker. Having been drawn in a group with the defensively shaky hosts, a Bolivia team ranked below the Cape Verde Islands and Haiti and a Costa Rica side who only found out they we’re playing in the tournament a few weeks back, you’d expect him to be amongst the goals. The Colombians will see a quarter-final place as being eminently achievable and his goals will be expected to fire them there. If not, there may be some investigation done in the offices of the Colombian FA into how much South American blood runs in the Vassell family.
4. Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
It’s not like Liverpool fans to get ridiculously over-excited, but Suarez very well may be the BEST. PLAYER. IN. THE. HISTORY. OF. THE. WORLD. EVER. A more realistic assessment would be that he has continued his excellent form of the last few years and his adaptation to English football has been more Van Nistelrooy than Kezman. He may have been snapped up as an ill-advised January panic buy, but the early signs are that he has what it takes to be the latest Kop idol who’ll spearhead several years of frustration punctuated by momentary defeats of Man Utd and the ensuing belief that ‘this will be our year.’
Suarez is already a hero for Uruguay after his performances in South Africa. The quality of his displays were thought to be large part of the reason for their march to the semi-finals and the quality of his goalkeeping was definitely the reason the South Americans beat Ghana in the quarter-finals and simultaneously kicked 24 million people in the nuts at the same time. A long history of success; a lack of silverware in recent years yet an overwhelming sense of entitlement and expectation? Why playing for Uruguay is the perfect preparation for the season ahead at Anfield. In fairness, the Charrúas have a fantastic record in the competition and a team with that clichéd blend of young talent mixed with steady old hands. If they can strike the right balance between grim defending and inspired sucker-punching (i.e. the formula for success they used in the last World Cup) they’ll go close. Suarez and – in particular – how he continues his partnership with Diego Forlan are crucial to the darks horses’ chances of success. If not they’ll just be another well fancied team who dashed the hopes of millions. At least it will stand to him for his Liverpool career.
5. Maicon (Brazil)
In fairness, Gareth Bale did to his reputation what having a Gary Glitter album on your iPod does for your chances of landing a job as a babysitter, but the Brazilian right back remains one of the world’s best. At his finest, he seems to pull the strings from right back, combining defensive solidity with a marauding attacking threat whilst at his worst he looks like he wouldn’t get a game in the Newcastle back four. Days after the Copa America comes to an end he turns 30 and he’s reached something of a crossroads in his career. He can stay in Italy and take advantage of the ‘lifestyle’ and prolong his career in a Cafu-esque style until his mid-60s or he can leave in search of greater glory and bigger paycheques.
We’re not so sure about the greater glory, but certainly he’ll get a bigger paycheque at Real Madrid and that’s where he’s been linked heavily to in recent weeks. Having worked under the Special One at Inter Milan, there’s every chance the Brazilian sees him as some sort of Spiritual Leader and will be more than willing to join him or at the very least sign over all his personal wealth to him.
Before that it’s the small matter of attempting to make it three Copa America’s on the bounce for Brazil and they’ve been handed a pretty sweet draw. In fairness every draw is pretty sweet when you’re Brazil, but they should make easy passage to the quarter finals and anything less than that will probably result in Mano Menezes getting the boot before he’s even had a chance to warm the hot-seat. Against them is the fact every game will feel like an away game with the passionate Argentine support unleashing venom usually only reserved for matches in which the words ‘Falklands’ and ‘Malvinas’ feature heavily in the build-up. If la Selecao are to win on enemy soil, a Player of The Tournament style performance will be needed from Maicon.