By Ricardo Zuniga
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SANTIAGO, Chile _ Lionel Messi and Neymar aren’t used to being upstaged.
It could happen as the Copa America _ the South American championship _ begins its 3 1/2-week run on Thursday in the wake of the FIFA corruption scandal that forced President Sepp Blatter to announce his resignation.
Many of the corruption allegations have centred on the governing body of South American soccer. Its former president, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, was one of 14 people indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice two weeks ago on charges of bribery, racketeering and money-laundering.
Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, who succeeded Leoz, was among seven FIFA officials arrested in Zurich.
Messi and Argentina teammates Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez have travelled half way around the world from the Champions League final in Berlin, along with Brazil striker Neymar and Chile players Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo.
They’ll need to put on a show to claim back the main stage. But they are sure to be jet-lagged while tending to unfinished business from last year’s World Cup.
The major absence is Luis Suarez of Uruguay, who is ineligible and still serving a ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.
The main story lines will revolve around Argentina and Brazil. Argentina, the loser in last year’s World Cup final against Germany, hasn’t won a major trophy in 22 years. The last was the Copa America.
Brazil’s 7-1 battering by Germany in the World Cup semifinals will never be forgotten, but it could be softened by winning in Chile.
Colombia and Chile may have their best teams in a generation. Even without Suarez, defending champion Uruguay is a factor.
Play opens Thursday with Chile playing Ecuador in Santiago. Argentina plays Saturday against Paraguay, and Brazil faces Peru on Sunday in its opener. The final is July 4.
No country in the world has more talented forwards than Argentina: Messi, Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
And no player is under more pressure than Messi, who was born in Argentina but has lived much of his life in Spain. He has yet to bring Argentina a team title, the way Diego Maradona did, or the way Pele did for Brazil.
Messi is fresh from Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Juventus in the Champions League final. He’s at his peak now, and will be 31 at the next World Cup in Russia in 2018. So many see this as his time.
“We have arrived at a special moment in our careers,” Messi wrote in the official magazine of the Argentine Football Association. “We came to the World Cup and barely missed out on glory. This gives us a push and makes us strong for what’s coming up. This is not about revenge. We just want this team to be remembered and be able to leave our country well respected.”
BRAZIL’S DAMAGED IMAGE
Brazil coach Dunga and many in the country believe the loss to Germany was a freak result.
“What happened in the World Cup was something isolated,” Dunga said. “Everyone talks about the need to get back respect, but Brazilian football is still admired everywhere, the Brazilian jersey is still being coveted a lot.”
Dunga has won all nine of his matches since taking over the national team after the World Cup, with Brazil set to face Honduras on Wednesday in its last friendly before the Copa America.
Brazil has not placed as much importance on the tournament as it rivals. It has won eight times compared to 15 for Uruguay and 14 for Argentina.
Colombia has James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, who missed last year’s World Cup with a knee injury.
“We have very good forwards in their prime,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said, one of six Argentines coaching in the tournament.
Remember, Colombia nearly upset Brazil in last year’s World Cup quarterfinals, losing 2-1.
Another Argentine coach is Jorge Sampaoli, who has a so-called “Golden Generation” with Chile led by Alexis Sanchez, Vidal and Bravo.
“Were living through a generation of fantastic football player,” Sampaoli said.
Chile also went out narrowly against Brazil, losing 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the round of 16.
It may not be obvious, but the Copa America might be nearly as difficult to win as the World Cup.
The favourites are Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. All five reached the final 16 of the World Cup in Brazil. Mexico, which plays with Jamaica as one of two guest teams, also reached the last 16, although Mexico is fielding a weakened team in Chile.
Of those six, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina reached the quarterfinals.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino, who recently replaced Alejandro Sabella, has been critical of the scheduling by UEFA, saying the governing body of European soccer ignored the tight schedule and the start of the Copa America.
“It could have been avoided,” Martino said, “to protect the football players so they can play in all the events they deserve to play in.”