Ten reasons to watch the Copa America

By Paul Kennedy

The Copa America is the oldest international soccer tournament in the world, predating the World Cup by 14 years. It kicks off its 2015 edition on Thursday when host Chile plays Ecuador. The 12-team tournament features some of the biggest stars in the world -- Lionel Messi for Argentina, Neymar for Brazil and James Rodriguez for Colombia, among others -- and competitive balance rarely seen in international competition.

For U.S. fans, there is local interest, so to speak, in the tournament. Four weeks ahead of the Gold Cup, Concacaf rivals Mexico (fielding a "B" team) and Jamaica complete the 12-team field, and MLS fans will recognize current and former MLS players. U.S. fans will also enjoy prime-time or late-afternoon kickoffs to watch the tournament on beIN Sports and BeIN Sports en Espanol.

Here are 10 reasons to watch the Copa America ...

1. Messi. Barcelona's Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey triple gives Messi 24 titles with the Catalan club since he debuted in 2005. His total with Argentina since debuting the same year? Zero. The 2011 Copa America was a low point for Messi as Argentina exited -- at home -- in the quarterfinals and Messi failed to score a goal. This will be Messi's third Copa America to go along with three World Cups. The closest he came to winning a championship was in 2007 when Argentina finished second to Brazil at the Copa America and last year when it was runner-up at the World Cup.  "This group deserves to be able to achieve something," said Messi after arriving in Chile. "After the World Cup, we were left feeling very bad and now we have a chance to win a trophy which we want a lot."

Copa America: 2015 Schedule

2. La Roja. Host Chile, one of original four teams to play in the first tournament in 1916, has never won the Copa America, but La Roja looks poised to make a run for the title at home. It played some great soccer at the 2014 World Cup, eliminating defending champion Spain before falling unluckily to Brazil in overtime in the second round. Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli has brought most of that team back for the Copa America. Its headliner is Alexis Sanchez, one of the stars of the English Premier League season with Arsenal.

3. Parity. Of Conmebol's 10 members, nine either played in the 2014 World Cup or reached the semifinals at the 2011 Copa America. Of the six South America teams that participated in the 2014 World Cup, only Ecuador was eliminated in the first round. Of the five that reached the knockout stage -- runner-up Argentina, host Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay. -- only Uruguay even reached the 2011 Copa America's final four, where it was joined by Peru, Paraguay and Venezuela. That leaves Bolivia as the outsider on the South American scene.

4. New Brazil. Brazil heads into the 2015 Copa America as the favorite after running off 10 straight wins in friendly games under new coach Dunga. Actually, the former midfielder was brought back for his second tour as national team coach with the same old ideas of the practical over the beautiful but some new promising faces. Dunga, who had led Brazil to the 2007 Copa America title and the quarterfinals at the 2010 World Cup, has retained just six players from the 2014 World Cup, most notably star Neymar, who is coming off a championship season at Barcelona. New players to watch include Phillipe Coutinho, who had an excellent season for Liverpool, and Diego Tardelli, one of many Brazilian stars who have moved to Chinese clubs, plus Danilo, Miranda and Felipe Luis on the backline, Elias in midfield and Roberto Firmino up front.

5. El Piojo. Everyone's favorite coach from the 2014 World Cup, Miguel Herrera, returns with Mexico for the Copa America though on a slightly shorter leash since El Tri exited the World Cup controversially to the Netherlands in the round of 16. The recent loss to the USA in San Antonio has fans worried that the Mexico "B" team -- the "A" team is being saved for the Gold Cup -- will flop in Chile. Herrera got himself in hot water with the media and Mexican federation for tweeting his support for the Partido Verde in Mexico's mid-term elections. To make matters worse, El Tri played poorly in a 2-0 loss to Brazil -- which it had tied at the Gold Cup -- and the hashtag #FueraPiojo ("Piojo Out") has popped up.

6. Cavani. Edinson Cavani is used to playing in the shadow of other stars. He plays second fiddle to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris St. Germain and played a supporting role to Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez on the Uruguayan national team. But Forlan is retired from the Celeste and Suarez is still serving his international suspension for biting Giorgio Chiellini of Italy at the World Cup, so this is Cavani's team, at least for now. He scored 31 goals for PSG in 2014-15 but supposedly wants out. He'll want to have a big tournament to help convince someone to pay PSG's exorbitant asking price: $80 million.

7. Brazil-Colombia. The big match of the group stage is Brazil-Colombia next Wednesday in Santiago, a rematch of their ugly quarterfinal match at the World Cup, where Neymar suffered a broken vertebra and was lost for the rest of the tournament thanks to a knee in the back by Colombia's Juan Zuniga. The defender is back with Colombia, as is James Rodriguez, the breakout star of the World Cup. Star Radamel Falcao, who missed last year's World Cup with a knee injury, has rejoined the Cafeteros, one of the tournament favorites. "We have very good forwards in their prime," Colombia coach Jose Pekerman boasted.

8. Argentine coaches. Sampaoli and Pekerman are among six Argentines coaching the 10 South American entrants. Gerardo Martino (formerly at Barcelona) will coach Argentina, while Bolivia (Mauricio Soria), Ecuador (Gustavo Quinteros) and Paraguay (Ramon Diaz) with also be coached by Argentines.

9. FIFA scandals. The specter of the FIFA scandals will hang over the Copa America. As FIFA watchers will know, the genesis of the bribery schemes was then-Conmebol president Nicolas Leoz's insistence that sports promoter Traffic pay him kickbacks to acquire the Copa America's media rights in the early 1990s. As the value of those rights grew, so did the money demanded and the boldness of the conspirators. A $110 million kickback scheme was hatched covering four tournaments, including the 2016 Copa Centenario, which is now in jeopardy. Part of the scheme called for each of the federation heads to receive payoffs. Rafael Esquivel, president of Venezuela's federation since 1988, is in jail in Switzerland awaiting extradition orders to the United States. Marco Polo Del Nero fled Switzerland before attending his first FIFA executive committee meeting and has refused to resign his position as he president of the Brazilian federation. Several federation presidents will have one eye on the Copa America matches and the other on local tax prosecutors seeking to question them about the scandal.

10. Reggae Boyz. MLS has a dog in the Copa America fight: Jamaica. Each year, Conmebol invites two non-South American teams to the tournament. Mexico has been a fixture since the Copa America was expanded to 12 teams in 1993. This year's second invitee is Jamaica, coached by German Winfried Schaefer. He's brought in five MLS players -- Giles Barnes and Jermaine Taylor (Houston), Je-Vaughn Watson (FC Dallas) and Darren Mattocks (Vancouver) and Kemar Lawrence (NY Red Bulls) --  for what will be a long summer of international soccer. As Caribbean champions, the Reggae Boyz will also play in the Gold Cup. More important, the Copa America will be valuable experience as Jamaica prepares for World Cup 2018 qualifying.

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