The Copa América has been beset by organisational problems and played in empty stadiums to a backdrop of health, social and public turmoil, but at least it has the best possible grand finale. Hosts Brazil beat Peru 1-0 on Monday, and their neighbours and foes, Argentina, beat Colombia on penalties on Wednesday, setting up a Brazil v Argentina final at the Maracanã on Saturday night. For the first time since 2007, the continent’s two greatest rivals will meet in the final of the world’s oldest international tournament.
Suddenly the planet is interested in the 2021 Copa América, even if Conmebol dropped a major clanger by holding the final when most Europeans will be asleep. The tournament has not exactly set viewing records in Brazil, with the odd format hardly helping – there were 20 games in the group stage to eliminate just two teams before the quarter-finals. Brazil’s opening game – a 3–0 win over Venezuela – was trounced in the ratings by the standard Sunday night variety shows.
Furthermore, the team has taken criticism from both sides of the political divide. Fans on the right, who stand behind president Jair Bolsonaro, were unhappy when it looked like the players and manager wanted to avoid competing in the tournament; and fans on the other side of the political divide felt let down when the team relented and took part in the tournament despite their reservations about rising Covid cases in Brazil.
For a team that apparently did not want to compete, Brazil flew out of the blocks, scoring nine goals as they won their first three games. With qualification to the knockout stages already confirmed, they fielded a second fiddle side against Ecuador in their last group game and drew 1-1. Their 1-0 wins over Chile in the quarter-finals and Peru in the semi-finals were not sparkling, but their defensive record of conceding just two goals in their six games is impressive.
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.