The Copa América has been plagued by organizational issues and has been played in empty stadiums against a backdrop of health, social, and political unrest, yet it has the best conceivable grand finale. Brazil defeated Peru 1-0 on Monday, while Argentina defeated Colombia on penalties on Wednesday, setting up a final between the two countries in the Maracan on Saturday night. The continent’s two fiercest rivals will clash in the final of the world’s oldest international event for the first time since 2007.
The 2021 Copa América has sparked worldwide interest, even if Conmebol made a significant blunder by scheduling the final when most Europeans will be sleeping. The event is currently in progress.
The 2021 Copa América has sparked worldwide interest, even if Conmebol made a significant blunder by scheduling the final when most Europeans will be sleeping. The strange format, with 20 games in the group stage to eliminate only two clubs before the quarter-finals, hasn’t exactly helped the tournament’s popularity in Brazil. The ratings for Brazil’s first game, a 3–0 triumph over Venezuela, were crushed by the usual Sunday night variety shows.
Furthermore, the team has received criticism from both political parties. Fans on the right, who support President Jair Bolsonaro, were disappointed when it appeared that the players and manager wanted to avoid competing in the tournament; and fans on the other side of the political divide were disappointed when the team relented and entered the tournament despite their concerns about the rising number of Covid cases in Brazil.
Brazil, for a team that didn’t seem to want to compete, exploded out of the gate, scoring nine goals in their first three games. They fielded a second fiddle side against Ecuador in their final group, despite having already qualified for the knockout stages.
Brazil scored in the first half against Peru and were happy to sit on that slim lead, but they will have to go for the jugular on Saturday. Brazil beat Argentina on their way to winning the last Copa América in 2019 and, as soon as they had seen off Peru, Neymar let it be known who he wanted to meet in the final in Rio. “I want Argentina,” he said. “I am cheering for them because I have many friends there. In the final, Brazil will win.”
We can assume his PSG teammates Ángel Di María and Leandro Paredes form part of this group of amigos, but we know who he means above all others. For all the history in this fixture, the main narrative here is Neymar versus Lionel Messi. The pair were the closest of colleagues at Barcelona, where the MSN frontline they formed with Luis Suárez became one of the best strike forces ever seen in football. If Neymar and Messi are not the best players in the world right now, they are certainly the best in South America.
Both players are chasing their first major international trophy. They have won the Olympics – Messi in 2008 and Neymar in 2016 – but not the World Cup or Copa América. Neymar was injured when Brazil won the Copa on home soil in 2019 and Messi has fallen at the final hurdle on three occasions with Argentina, in 2007, 2015 and 2016 – disappointments that sit alongside his defeat in the World Cup final in 2014.
Neymar has every right to feel confident. With two goals and three assists so far in the tournament, he is closing in on Pelé’s all-time scoring record for Brazil. He has never lost an international game in Brazil and his form is only getting better, with 45 goal contributions – 22 goals and 23 assists – in his 40 caps under Tite.
Brazil have not lost a competitive game in three years. Their last friendly defeat was in 2019 against Argentina in Saudi Arabia of all places, where they were without Neymar. The goalscorer in Argentina’s 1-0 win? Messi, of course. But it should be noted that Messi has never been on the winning side against Brazil – or even scored against them – in a competitive game. If Brazil fans are looking for more reasons to be optimistic, they will be glad to learn that their country has not lost a final to Argentina since the 1937 Copa América – and that game was played in Buenos Aires.
Brazil have not always taken the Copa América seriously – Pelé never won it, for instance – but Tite sees its value and he will become the first Brazil manager to win back-to-back Copas if Brazil are victorious on Saturday night. A home win would also help Brazil gain ground on Argentina, who have 14 titles, and Uruguay, who have 15, to Brazil’s nine. A win at the Maracanã would give Brazil their very own décima.
Brazil have a good recent record against Argentina in finals, having beaten them in the Copa América finals of 2004 and 2007, as well as in the Confederations Cup final in 2005. Every match against Argentina matters in Brazil – even the Confederations Cup. The venue is also important. Since their devastating defeat to Uruguay in the World Cup in 1950, Brazil have not tasted defeat at the Maracanã in a competitive game, winning 22 and drawing six matches at the stadium. Brazil have also won three trophies at the Maracanã: the Copa América in 1989 and 2019, and the Confederations Cup in 2013.
History may favour Brazil, but Tite can take nothing for granted. With Gabriel Jesus serving a two-game suspension after his horror chest kick, the manager has a big decision to make about who replaces him in the line-up. Everton Cebolinha did not take advantage of his audition against Peru. He was Brazil’s breakout star in the last Copa but that accolade has gone to Lucas Paquetá this time around.
After struggling at Milan, Paquetá has revitalised his career at Lyon and has been Brazil’s second best player at the Copa after Neymar. He scored Brazil’s winning goals in both the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and his link-up with Neymar has been fantastic. Tite has been suitably impressed, calling him “the only other player in the squad who understands football in the way that Neymar and Coutinho does.”
Fred has also impressed alongside Casemiro in midfield in Tite’s 4-2-3-1, with Fabinho left out in the cold. Thiago Silva has partnered Marquinhos in the centre of defence, with Ederson securing the No1 spot at Alisson’s expense. Renan Lodi looks to have finally succeeded Alex Sandro at left-back, with Danilo at right-back. It is an impressive team, with home advantage and history on their side. But, as Neymar knows all too well, they are facing a special opponent with something to prove.