By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The 2011 Copa América kicked off in Argentina last Friday (July 1st), while defending champions Brazil, the “Seleção,” played their opening game on Sunday against Venezuela. After almost a year at the helm, Mano Menezes took charge of his first competitive fixture, which ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw.
The Copa América, now held every four years, is the most important international tournament in South America behind the FIFA World Cup. First held in 1916, Argentina and Uruguay hold the record for most title wins (fourteen each).
But it is Brazil who have won the last two tournaments, in 2004 and 2007, and with the pair of Neymar and Ganso added to the ranks are favorites to make it a hat-trick of successes. Playing on home turf, Argentina are also considered to have an excellent chance of ending an eighteen year trophy drought.
After the shock relegation of Buenos Aires giant River Plate for the first time in 110 years it seems nothing is sacred in Argentina and their greatest fear could be realized if Brazil manage to lift the trophy on their soil.
Both nations have endured frustrating starts to the Copa; in Friday’s opening match, Sergio Aguero spared Argentine blushes with a late equalizer against Bolivia to rescue a 1-1 draw, while Brazil looked far from the finished article on Sunday afternoon.
The expectation was great prior to kick-off, with Ganso, Neymar, Robinho and Pato all named in the starting line-up. And it looked, for the first half hour at least, that Menezes’ boldness was going to pay off. Brazil started the game with all guns blazing and Venezuela could barely get a touch of the ball.
Robinho had tested the goalkeeper within the first minute, Neymar wasted a second opportunity after five, and after 27 Pato shot with such ferocity that the crossbar rattled as the ball cannoned back into play. Pato, who was the best player on the pitch, again forced the keeper into a fine save and it appeared just a matter of time until the dam burst.
As time passed though, and chances were missed, the team took on an air of anxiety. Suddenly no one seemed willing to take responsibility for the ball. Midfielder Ramires and right back Dani Alves tried in vain to kick-start the stuttering engine, but the passing and movement had vanished.
Menezes needed inspiration and hauled off Robinho, who was booed as he grudgingly trudged from the pitch. Fred was his replacement as Brazil switched to two central strikers. The ploy failed and the coach reacted by replacing Pato with Lucas.
He had however left it too late; the 18-year-old Lucas was instrumental at the beginning of the Brasileiro for São Paulo and many felt should have been given more of an opportunity to pick the Venezuelan lock on Sunday.
At the final whistle, Brazil were booed from the pitch for the third successive match, following a 0-0 draw with Holland and a 1-0 win over Romania. Menezes must ensure his team find their rhythm soon to appease the already baying crowd.
Brazil’s next game is on Saturday against Paraguay, who also only managed a goalless draw at the weekend against Ecuador.