This is new Argentine coach Sergio Batista’s first major test since replacing Diego Maradona last year. (Getty Images)
(WFI) Argentina’s quest for a first Copa America title – and major international tournament win – since 1993 begins Friday in La Plata.
“I hope things go well for us,” reigning FIFA world player of the year Lionel Messi.
“Everyone is very excited about the Copa America. It’s been a while since Argentina has won an important title. We need some joy for ourselves and our fans,” the Barca star told AP.
Bolivia are the host country’s opponent for the opener of these South American championships. Colombia and Costa Rica round out Group A.
Two-time defending champs Brazil are joined in Group B by Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela. Brazil beat Argentina in each of the last finals in 2004 and 2007.
Uruguay, Chile, Peru and newly minted CONCACAF Gold Cup winners Mexico make up Group C.
Matches are spread across eight cities in Argentina for two weeks of preliminary play.
After each country faces the others in its group, the top two from each as well as the two highest-ranked third-place finishers then advance to knockout rounds beginning July 16.
The final is slated for July 24 in Buenos Aires at Monumental Stadium, at least for the time being.
The venue was shut down Sunday after the relegation of Argentina’s River Plate for the first time in their 110-year history. Their relegation sparked rioting inside and outside the stadium. Around 70 supporters and police were injured, and more than 50 fans were arrested.
CONMEBOL, the governing body for South American football, says the venue will be open in time for the final.
River Plate fans clashed with police after their club was relegated, shutting down the stadium where the Copa America final will be played. (Getty Images)
Noticeably absent from the next three weeks of football will be Japan.
In a six-week period ending last month, football officials from the quake-struck country first informed organizers of their intent to withdraw, then announced they were reconsidering that decision, then confirmed Samurai Blue’s participation.
Eventually, they withdrew for good on May 17 citing an inability to force European clubs to release
players for the occasion.
Later that day, CONMEBOL invited Costa Rica to play in Japan’s place. Because the South American confederation has only 10 members, two national teams from elsewhere in the world fill out the 12-team draw. Mexico are the other guest team.
At stake in Argentina is qualification for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, a competition contested every four years among the champions from each of the six continents.
As host, Brazil is automatically in, so the highest finishing team other than Brazil and the two guests will be the real winner at Copa America.