Brazil, Uruguay clear Copa America favorites amid CONMEBOL's widespread instability
South America flips the switch very quickly from international football back to the club game. In some places, domestic football even continued as normal during the FIFA dates -- Brazil's regional championships, for example, which are starting to reach the business end. In others the focus swiftly alters. The Argentine title could be decided in the weekend's penultimate round, and the Copa Libertadores is back in full swing next week.
That said, it is worthwhile to pause to reflect on what the national teams have been up to over the past few days. After all, the next time squads are named it will not be for friendlies. South American national teams have not been involved in genuine competitive games since last year's World Cup and those who failed to make it to Russia have been limited to friendlies since Oct. 2017. The 2019 Copa America in Brazil is just 12 weeks away and these March FIFA dates were the last chance for rehearsals before the teams gear up for South America's most preeminent tournament.
These March FIFA dates also served as the first time that three of the continent's 10 teams were in action under new coaches. Eduardo Villegas of Bolivia, Carlos Queiroz of Colombia and Eduardo Berizzo of Paraguay all began their reigns of their new national teams. All three are still feeling their way, especially the latter pair, who are working in their respective countries for the first time.
Berizzo was quick to confess that he has a lot of work ahead. His team produced two poor first-half displays in defeats to Peru and Mexico, his players still trying to assimilate to the idea of playing higher up the pitch. But even Villegas and the vastly experienced Queiroz will still be finding their feet during the Copa America.
Hernan Dario Gomez, in his second spell in charge of Ecuador, does not expect to complete his process of constructing a side until early next year. Meanwhile, Chile's Reinaldo Rueda is finding the reconstruction of the team a tough task, and Argentina, bizarrely, will go into the Copa under a caretaker coach, the inexperienced Lionel Scaloni.
That leaves four teams in a more advanced stage of preparation. One of them, Venezuela, continue to make excellent progress, as highlighted by their recent 3-1 win over Argentina but the country's polarized political situation is taking its toll. Coach Rafael Dudamel is an important symbol of the giant strides the team has made over the last 20 years but he is considering his position, tired of the national team being used as a political football by both sides of the political dispute.
Peru, still have the majority of the team that took them to their first World Cup in 36 years in 2018 and are still coached by Ricardo Gareca. They can be infuriating though, case and point: their recent win over Paraguay was followed by a 2-0 defeat to El Salvador! As the coach commented after the game, his side seem equally capable of beating anyone - or of losing to anyone.
And so perhaps the two strongest teams going into the Copa are the two South American sides who did best in Russia last year -- Brazil and Uruguay.
Host Brazil's post-World Cup performances have been patchy but morale will have been boosted by a fine second half in Tuesday's 3-1 win over the Czech Republic. But was that down to an intelligent tweak, a move to a 4-2-3-1 that appeared to leave the side with a better balance? Or could it all be attributed to the second-half substitutions made by their opponents? The truth will be revealed on home ground in June and July.
Which leaves Uruguay. Oscar Washington Tabarez has now been in charge for over 13 years, during which time Uruguay have returned to the game's top table. This is no coincidence as there has been a mixture here of some great players and some great planning.
Captain and centre-back Diego Godin may be coming towards the end but he has been a magnificent symbol of the side -- and in the team's recent wins (they claimed the China Cup beating Uzbekistan 3-0 and Thailand 4-0) he became Uruguay's most-capped player ever with 127 caps. These results admittedly came against weak opposition but they were achieved without the world-class strike pair of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, both of whom are injured. Those injuries didn't slow La Celeste a bit, as Cristhian Stuani stepped up to be the player of the tournament, Maxi Gomez scored his first international goal, Gaston Pereiro further established himself as an attacking option, and Uruguay keep rolling along.
The side is continually renewed with the introduction of graduates from the Under-20 ranks -- a priority for Tabarez ever since he took over. Almost the entire squad have come through Uruguay's youth development system -- it is the means by which a country with a population of just over three million can keep punching above its weight.
Now 72, Tabarez seems to have been around forever. In these recent matches he gave an international debut to Penarol right back Giovanni Gonzalez. Over 20 years ago, when he was with Oviedo in Spain, Tabarez coached Juan Gonzalez, the father of Giovanni.
With wisdom and serenity, Tabarez plots the course of a Uruguay side which, at this point, look like being the biggest threat to hosts Brazil in the 2019 Copa America.