South America has only 10 footballing nations, which is an awkward number for a tournament.
Ever since 1993, then, two outsiders have been invited to make up the numbers in the Copa America, usually from the CONCACAF region, but occasionally from further afield such as Japan in 1999 and Qatar in 2019. A special centenary version of the Copa was held in the United States in 2016 with a grand total of 16 teams. That aside, the norm over the course of 10 Copas has been 12 teams divided into three groups of four, with the top eight going through to the quarterfinals.
The group phase can feel like something of a drag, eliminating just four sides. Imagine, then, what it is going to be like this year.
Making up the numbers this time were supposed to be Qatar and Australia. They were due to be taking part in an unwieldy version of the Copa, an extra one crammed in, ironically enough, to take advantage of a switch from odd years to even. After 2019, the next one was scheduled for 2024, so CONMEBOL, the regional administrator, slipped in another one in 2020 — which was subsequently pushed back a year as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. It is set to go ahead from mid June to mid July.
It is an awkward competition. Argentina were desperate to stage it after the fiasco of the 2018 Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors, which did not go ahead due to fan violence and ended up being played in Spain. This was seen as a body blow to the 2030 World Cup campaign, which Argentina hopes to co-host along with Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay. Argentina wanted a chance to clean the slate, and lobbied hard to host the extra Copa.
This left Colombia understandably enraged. First, by rights Colombia considered itself the next South American nation in line to stage a World Cup. 2030, though is the centenary of the competition, which was first held in Uruguay, and so Colombia stood aside while the south cone organised a bid.
But standing aside for this Copa was a step too far. Colombia has only had the competition once, back in 2001. Argentina staged it as recently as 2011. Why should it have it again?
The solution was to co-host, to share the competition between Argentina and Colombia, two nations at opposite ends of a large continent, with a six hour flight needed to travel between the two capitals.
The brought about the need for a change of format. How could three groups be organised across two countries? The only answer was to have two groups, one in Argentina and one in Colombia. Two groups of six.
Which have now become two groups of five after Qatar’s and Australia’s withdrawal. World Cup qualifiers in Asia have been scheduled for the middle of the year. The other continents are in the same position, meaning there is no one else to bring in. And so, as was the case up to 1991, the Copa America is down to its footballing 10 nations. There are two groups of five.
The three Copas between 1987, when the tournament was brought back to life, and 1991 followed a similar format. There were two groups of five, and the top two in each group qualified for the closing stages.
But this time, although they are down to 10, the organisation is going ahead as if there were 12. In other words, after the group phase there are quarterfinals. Which, of course, need eight teams. Of the five in each group, four go through to the knockout stage. And so the entire group stage, running from June 13 to July 3, serves to eliminate precisely two teams.
In an already jumbled calendar, the group phase of this year’s Copa America looks like needless clutter.