With Copa America 2016 slow to ignite, soccer fans have the rare opportunity to check out a second major
international tournament going on at the same time when host France and Romania kicks off Euro 2016 at noon Friday live on ESPN2.
The 24-team competition is bigger than ever — it’s the first time there are more than 16 countries involved in the month-long event — if not better, given that the quality of the nations involved is diluted by the quantity.
Still, that has allowed smaller countries such as Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales — and by extension Welshman Gareth Bale of Real Madrid — to make a rare appearance at a major competition.
Question marks even hang over traditional powerhouses such as Italy (which lacks top players; eccentric Mario Balotelli wasn’t considered), Spain (aging) and yes, even Germany (unimpressive in qualifying), even if the latter are favorites to win back-to-back World Cup and European Championship titles.
And yet there is optimism among nations that typically flatter to deceive that this could be their year, including the talented Belgians, Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal or perhaps even England with memories of its lone 1966 World Cup win fading fast.
Mix in motivated aging stars such as the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (likely making their final appearances at a major tournament for the Republic of Ireland and Sweden, respectively) and there are plenty of story lines to capture the imagination.
The opening few days of the tournament also has some of the best games of the group stage. The two best teams on paper in Group B, Russia and England, meet at noon Saturday on ESPN, a perfect time for the English pubs in Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley to start rocking.
By game’s end we should know just how much of a challenge England will provide, armed as it is with prodigiously talented youngsters that have even the conservative Brits almost giddy about their prospects. Monday features two must-watch games with Ireland and Sweden clashing at 9 a.m. on ESPN, followed by Belgium and Italy at noon, contests that likely will go a long way in determining who advances to the next round.
IS COPA AMERICA BUZZ BACK?
It’s a crucial weekend for U.S. participation in Copa America, too, with the Americans playing its third and final group game against Paraguay at 4 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports 1.
A channel record 1.6 million viewers witnessed the 4-0 U.S. demolition of Costa Rica on Tuesday.
The result was not unexpected — Costa Rica hasn’t beaten the U.S. on American soil in 15 games since 1989 — but the manner of the victory was welcomed given the less than persuasive performance in the loss to Colombia.
The result will give coach Jurgen Klinsmann breathing room; none other than USSF president Sunil Gulati remarked that no one has ironclad job security.
But let’s temper this with a dose of realism as fans and the media lurch from one extreme to the other: opposition in the knockout stages will be much more formidable and offers no second chances.
The U.S. has lacked virtually any kind of consistency of late and while Klinsmann is finally loosening the tactical shackles and deploying promising youngsters, personnel limitations in comparison to other rosters means there will be little margin for error in the games ahead.
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