It took 100 years for football in the Americas to really come together. Brazilian magic, Argentin competitiveness and Uruguayan bravery cross paths in the same tournament as Jamaican power, U.S. orderliness and the Mexican touch. For 26 days, Copa America will finally unite the essence of each of the participating 16 teams.
The distance between Canada and Argentina is more than 7,000 miles. For fans from both countries to attend a qualifying game between Argentina and Canada is virtually impossible.
So, the 35 countries in the Americas are divided into two confederations, defined by some as the cradles of good football and bad football.
Our continent stretches from Canada in the north to Panama in the south, with its own distinct structure, level and style of soccer.
Football can be both rhythmic and robotic. Each country owns its style and strategy, ranging from the Brazilian favela, where the ball moves with a carefree, almost magical spirit, to the American university where physical work is prioritized over technique.
Robot football belongs to some countries. It's an old game in which the model and tactics are tied to talent and creativity. That's the seal of the traditonal English game with its wings and the crosses into the area for a "big guy" to leap for his life and nod the ball into the goal. In this magnetic football, the defense stays put, the goalkeeper doesn't know how to play with his feet, the midfielders recover but don't spread out and the striker's only technique is to push the ball towards the goal whatever way he can.
In robot football, its how much that matters, not how. It's to be strong, tackle hard, push, work, be consistent, mentally balanced and tougher than the rest. The Americas have their soccer robot that functions, but fails to evolve. Fortunately for those looking for entertainment, this style is increasingly fading away.
The United States is the best example of transformation. Watching a U.S. game in the 70s or 80s was like seeing a team play according to the coach’s instructions without departing from the script. The discipline of their football verged on the excessive, and lacked the free flowing style of teams like Brazil or Argentina.
CONCACAF football is gradually removing those chains. The once-gritty football is more technical and better every day now, no longer sticking to the long ball and trying to break down the opposition rather than playing a more attractive game. The evolution of CONCACAF was amply demonstrated by Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where it was able to take apart other teams by playing the ball, and if it had not been for a penalty, could have cast aside the Dutch masters of “total football.”
Caribbean football is in a similar place. There. the soccer field used to be an ideal place to run the 100 meters even if they overran the ball. There is a dictum that coaches preach: let the ball do the work, not the player. That did not happen in some places. With the English approach, countries such as Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica have been perfecting a style that can choke rivals; they run like few can because they have the physique, but they also understand that being a robot isn’t enough if you want to win. Thus, gradually we are seeing more technical players who break the basic mould.
If CONCACAF is robot, CONMEBOL is cadence. The elegance mixes good football with the physical part, with craftiness built in. It embraces the creative approach, not the destructive one. That is the shadow cast over the game by such great players such as Pele, Maradona, Francescoli or Valderrama. Or in today’s game, James, Messi, Neymar or Sánchez .
In the middle is Mexico. A football criticized being arrogant and deceiving. Aztec football would like to be in South America, but geography doesn’t allow that. It is from here, but it doesn’t like being from here. It is a mixture of robot soccer with lilting football. It’s maybe what has differentiated it for many years from other members of CONCACAF, and it is a virtue that makes it compete with, and beat, teams from CONMEBOL.
That’s what Copa America will be. A clash of styles and schools that, thanks to the 100 th anniversary of the world's oldest tournament, gives us the chance to see how two worlds unite despite being on the same continent.