Historic Copa America is history in the making
I am heading down to Argentina not looking forward to the intense winter cold - quite frankly, it is the kind of thing I crossed the Atlantic to avoid - but with a warm glow in anticipation of the 43rd Copa America, which kicks off on Friday.
The tournament has a double-edged beauty. It is a pilgrimage to a place where football history was made, and a fascinating opportunity to witness history in the making.
The world's oldest continental tournament, the Copa was first staged in Argentina in 1916. There are times during the competition's 95-year history that it can claim to have showcased some of the best football ever seen at that point.
Until the Wall Street crash of 1929, it was held annually (with the exceptions of 1918 and 28), on four of those occasions in Argentina. At a time when football in the continent's south cone was catching on at extraordinary speed, these regular confrontations did much to raise standards.
In this sense, the World Cup is a child of the Copa America. Uruguay changed football by winning the Olympics of 1924 and 28, creating curiosity for a new global competition open to professionals - the World Cup, which Uruguay staged and won in 1930. None of this would have happened had Uruguay not picked up momentum and experience in the early versions of the Copa.
Then there is the 1940s, the golden age of Argentine football, with Brazil making rapid progress after professionalism had opened up the game to players from all backgrounds. I would love to have been around for the 1946 Copa, staged in Argentina, when the hosts cruised to the title, conducted by one of their all-time greats, Adolfo Pedernera. That must have been something to see.
But there will be plenty to see this year, too. And in one sense, 2011 holds an advantage over the great tournaments of the past. In terms of the strength in depth of the South American national teams, this might be the most formidable Copa ever played.
Brazil's players train in Campana, 60km outside Buenos Aires, ahead of the 43rd Copa America. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
The credit here goes not to the Copa, but to the marathon format of World Cup qualification, which is now used in South America. Since 1996, the continent's 10 countries play each other home and away, in one big league. It takes years - but remember that there are no qualifiers for the Copa America, unlike, for example, the European Championships. The South Americans are not playing any more qualifiers than the Europeans - it is just that they start the race for 2014 while Europe is still concerned with 2012.
In fact, the main consequence of the marathon format was to give the South Americans the kind of structure that European national teams take for granted. Previously, on this side of the Atlantic, there were huge gaps between competitive games - easy for the likes of Brazil and Argentina to fix up lucrative friendlies, much more difficult for the less-traditional nations.
But since 1996, these countries have been able to count on a calendar of regular competitive matches, with guaranteed income, and thus the chance to hire a top-quality coach, to keep a team together for the long term and also invest in youth development.
The difference has been amazing. Ecuador were a South American version of Luxembourg. In 2006, they made the world's last 16. Venezuela were a version of the Faroe Islands. They now have genuine hope of booking a place in 2014. Uruguay, it may be recalled, came fifth in the last set of qualifiers, and had to go through the play-offs to get to South Africa, where, of course, they reached the semi-finals.
Initially, this new format of World Cup qualification had a detrimental effect on the Copa America. After decades of disuse (coinciding with the reign of the military dictatorships), the Copa was resurrected in 1987, and was held every two years. After 1996, this meant that there was an excess of international fixtures, and the Copa paid the price. The tournament was greatly devalued, full of experimental line ups.
Now, though, the Copa has been shifted to a perfect time. Staged every four years, the tournament kicks off a new cycle of competitive matches.
Since the World Cup, the South American sides have been blooding new coaches and boosting their bank balances with friendlies. Now they have their sights on the coming set of World Cup qualifiers - and the Copa gives them a perfect opportunity to prepare. Of course, once the action kicks off in Argentina and the adrenalin kicks in, everyone will dream of lifting the trophy on 24 July. But the priority is to emerge from the competition with a battle-hardened squad ready to fight for a place in Brazil in three years' time. That is why everyone is at full strength in the Copa - or as near full strength as injuries allow.
That does not mean that there is nothing at stake over the next few weeks. Some coaches may be fatally undermined by what happens in this year's Copa, while others will have their prestige significantly boosted. And, of course, there is pressure on Argentina to end an 18-year wait for a senior title in front of their own fans. But the interest lies in the observation that the preparation is part of the process; some of the big storylines for 2014 start now.
And there is another aspect to the Copa. It is also an excellent opportunity for the host nation to invest in its football infrastructure. Argentina, like most recent hosts, is using the competition to combat the problem of excessive centralisation, the historic imbalance caused by the domination of Buenos Aires.
The capital will only stage the final. Everything else is in the provinces, from La Plata just down the road, to Santa Fe and Cordoba in the heartlands, Mendoza and San Juan near the border with Chile, and Salta and Jujuy to the north.
And the tournament comes at a fascinating moment, when teams from the provinces are beginning to raise their profile - a point emphatically proved by River Plate's relegation at the hands of Belgrano of Cordoba, Argentina's second city, which has always punched below its weight on the football field.
The 2011 Copa and its decentralising consequences count as history in the making - it will be worth putting on 20 layers of clothing to witness it at first hand.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, from where I will pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) Living in Washington, DC, I follow Major League Soccer rather closely (a rarity for an American soccer fan unfortunately). There are several very good young South American players in MLS. Fredy Montero is the most well known, but there is also Joao Plata from Ecuador, Fabian Espindola of Argentina, and the World Cup Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez. All of these players are under 25 years old and there has been a recent surge of more young South American players coming into the league. My question is how do South Americans view MLS? Do most people even know it exists?
A) It varies a bit from country to country. The profile was surprisingly high in Argentina recently, because idols such as Gallardo and Schellotto were playing there. In Brazil much less so - I set pulses running a few months back on Brazilian TV when I said that average MLS crowds were higher than the local first division. They were horrified, but checked it out and found out that it was true.
The profile is probably highest in Colombia, in part, I suppose, because of geographical proximity. If Fredy Montero came from a country further south I doubt that he would have been interested. The last time I was in Colombia I remember a player being asked if he wanted a move abroad, and replying that there were two leagues of particular interest to him - Spain and the US.