Argentina, Brazil again favorites at Copa America
LIMA, Peru -- Now it's South America's turn, although many of its top players won't be there.
Europe just finished crowning its champion at Euro 2004. South America today begins its Copa America, a 10-team tournament among nations whose soccer passions run deep. The opening games are Colombia-Venezuela and Peru-Bolivia.
Joining the field are two guests from the soccer region of North and Central America and the Caribbean -- Mexico and Costa Rica. The United States turned down an invitation.
The favorites again are Argentina and Brazil. But there could be a surprise at the 88-year-old event -- soccer's oldest national-team tournament -- because of all the big-name absentees.
World Cup champion Brazil will be without its three "R"s -- Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho. They have all chosen to rest after grueling European seasons. Instead, Brazil will field a younger squad, testing players and strategies with an eye toward the 2006 World Cup qualifiers.
"Our principal objective will be watching players for the future," coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said. "But in the process, we are obviously also looking to win."
Brazil leads the South American qualifying race, on break until September, with 13 points after seven games, one point ahead of Argentina. Chile and Paraguay are tied for third.
The Argentines are coming off several disappointing showings and pressure is mounting on coach Marcelo Bielsa. He has drafted several players from the team's 2002 World Cup squad.
Even though top stars Hernan Crespo, Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel are staying home, choosing to rest after their European seasons, Argentina probably has the strongest squad. But nothing less than the title most likely will satisfy its fans.
Peru has renovated stadiums in seven cities, adding 57,500 seats as it hosts the Copa America for the first time since 1957.
Organizers have overcome threats by airport workers and a stadium dispute. The tournament will open and close at Lima's 45,000-seat Nacional Stadium, built for the 1953 Copa.
Defending champion Colombia is rebuilding and vulnerable to an improved Venezuela, hoping to win its first Copa game since 1967.
Peru hopes Nolberto Solano and striker Claudio Pizzaro -- both play in Europe -- can help lift the host country to its third title. Peru should easily emerge from Group A, the weakest of the three groups.
Mexico will have one of the few veteran squads, featuring Claudio Suarez, Jared Borgetti, Francisco Valencia and goalkeeper Oscar Perez. The Mexicans will compete with Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay in Group B, considered the tournament's strongest.