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Last Updated: Monday, 25 June 2007, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Tim Vickery column
Tim Vickery
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

Brazil's Kaka, Ronaldinho and Ze Roberto have all pulled out of the Copa America, and Luis Jimenez made himself unavailable for Chile.

But plenty of South America's stars are in Venezuela for the tournament that gets under way on Tuesday.

Argentina's Lionel Messi tops the bill, but many other big name players from the top European clubs have made the trip back across the Atlantic.

Brazil star Kaka
Kaka will be absent but much is expected of the Copa America
It is the strongest line-up that the Copa America has had for some time.

That's not just because this year's tournament is taking place in a land famous for producing beauty queens.

It has more to do with the timing of the competition in relation to the main event in South American international football - the World Cup qualifiers.

Eleven years ago a new era began when the continent adopted the marathon format of World Cup qualification, with all 10 nations playing each other home and away.

At last it gave the South American teams the type of structure that European national sides take for granted.

Until this point international football in South America had tended to take place in quick bursts, with huge gaps in between.

Expanding the World Cup qualifiers meant that there would be regular competitive matches, thus allowing the traditionally weaker countries to keep a side together and grow in confidence and tactical awareness.

The rise of the likes of Ecuador and Venezuela is directly attributable to this change. But as a consequence the Copa America inevitably became devalued.

In recent Copas, a country's approach to the tournament was heavily influenced by where they were standing in the World Cup qualification table.

Those doing well tended to send experimental squads in order to look at fringe players. Those doing badly used the Copa as an opportunity to regroup.

That criteria does not apply to this tournament in Venezuela.

No-one is doing either well or badly because we are not in the middle of a qualification campaign.

The next one is due to get under way in October, which makes this Copa America the perfect opportunity to prepare a team for the battles ahead.

Venezuela will win the 2007 Copa America no matter what happens on the field

This explains why the squads in Venezuela are stronger than they have been for recent tournaments.

A new cycle is beginning, and a fresh set of coaches want to have a look at what they have.

Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay are playing their first competitive matches under their current coach. Argentina, Uruguay and Peru have re-appointed men who were previously in charge - well over a decade ago in the case of the first two.

For their coaches, these are the first competitive matches of their second spell.

The only coach who remains from the last Copa America, held just three years ago, is Venezuela's Richard Paez.

That is precisely because he has been building towards this tournament. Everyone else is primarily concerned with preparing for World Cup qualification.

This is important for Venezuela, too. But as hosts they have a responsibility to put on a good show in the Copa.

History is against them. Venezuela's only win in the competition came in 1967, 40 years and over 40 games ago.

But they have made great strides in recent years and their task is eased by the fact that they have been placed in the easiest of the three groups.

The home crowd are expectant - it will be fascinating to see how the team cope with the pressure.

In a sense, though, Venezuela will win the 2007 Copa America no matter what happens on the field.

Hosting the competition has spurred them towards making massive investments in their footballing infrastructure.

They are using nine stadiums - three of them brand new. It is a very ambitious Copa - possibly too ambitious, and there could be problems along the way.

But after the headaches have been forgotten the stadiums remain, allowing Venezuela to increase its first division from 10 clubs to 18.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at vickerycolumn@hotmail.com

Can you see any of the other countries breaking the Brazil-Argentina domination of the Copa America in Venezuela? And do you think that the banning of high altitude grounds mean that we will never see Colombia, Bolivia or Peru in a World Cup finals competition again?
Malcolm McCausland, Derry, N Ireland

The Copa is very difficult to predict - the group phase only eliminates four of the 12 teams, and in the knockout rounds it's straight to penalties after 90 minutes.

In 1999 I remember Uruguay sending an experimental young side to pick up experience - they found themselves in the final despite only winning one game.

Argentina are the favourites, Brazil a close second, Uruguay decent outsiders and I'll be interested to see Chile and Colombia.

The altitude ban - this story is not over yet. The South American Federation have asked Fifa to rethink, but if it does go ahead it will affect Bolivia and Ecuador.

Colombia have never got much advantage from the mild altitude of Bogota - when they've qualified they've used the steaming port of Barranquilla as their base.

And Peru have always played at sea level in Lima - in fact, it was their idea to take some of their matches up to altitude at Cuzco that provoked the current crisis.

But it's debatable whether Peru would have got much advantage from playing there - most of their players are lowlanders.

Would you agree that Alexandre Pato is going to be the next big thing to come out of South America and will make the cut just like Carlos Tevez and Kaka have done? I have watched him play and I haven't been as excited about a player as much since Tevez and Kaka.
Wiggy

I would agree - he's a 17-year-old Brazilian striker (plays for Internacional) who has clearly been touched by the hand of genius.

I don't think he's ready to move yet - he has a lot to learn about choosing his options better.

But he's the genuine article - one to look out for in the World Youth Cup, which kicks off in Canada in a few days.



SEE ALSO
Football tries to tackle Venezuela
25 Jun 07 |  Americas
S America urges Fifa to lift ban
15 Jun 07 |  Americas


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