x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A Messi start for big names in Copa America

Lionel Messi may shine brightly for club side Barcelona, but the forward suffers shades of grey when turning out for Argentina as they take on Colombia in search of their first win.

Messi felt strangled by Bolivia so he and the rest of his teammates will hope for a better perfromance tonight against Colombia.
Messi felt strangled by Bolivia so he and the rest of his teammates will hope for a better perfromance tonight against Colombia.

BUENOS AIRES // The Copa America, the world's oldest international football tournament, going back to 1916, brings together some of the silkiest talents the global game has to offer.

A continental finishing school for the World Cup, or so the theory goes, the tournament allows perennial Latin American giants Brazil and Argentina an ideal opportunity to blood a new generation before, armed with the experience, they graduate to the senior tournament.

It worked for, among others, the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho in the 1990s — but this year the opening round of action so far has generally hinted at a process in reverse.

In mostly disappointing matches to date, top talents who are already big names have flattered to deceive.

That goes particularly for Argentina's waif-like genius Lionel Messi, who can do no wrong with Barcelona, scoring and making goals at will while calling up on seemingly endless energy reserves.

Brazil, for their part, expected great things from teen starlet Neymar of Santos and clubmate Ganso, who celebrated the end of their domestic campaign with a Copa Libertadores triumph.

But far from displaying their magical talents at the Copa, all three greeted the ball as a virtual stranger in producing strangely muted performances against, in Messi's case, Bolivia, and against Venezuela in the case of the two Brazilians.

Messi and Neymar were more conspicuous for squaring up respectively to the Bolivian captain Ronald Raldes and the Venezuela coach Cesar Farias rather than conjuring any special moves which might, with a flash of brilliance, have turned dull draws into precious wins, however laboriously achieved.

Both players may point to long — and highly successful — seasons at club level prior to arriving at the Copa.

Yet so much more was expected of them than they have delivered to date on their home continent, where fans are bemused at their sudden loss of form after swapping club colours for the national variant.

Messi, praised for "always playing well" by Julio Grondona, the Argentine Federation head, blamed Bolivia for setting out to strangle the game.

"They all got behind the ball and we couldn't prise them open," said Messi. Some well-known names of whom much is expected in the Copa have started well, notably Luis Suarez, the Uruguay striker, who scored in his side's draw with Peru.

Fans in South America and beyond have also pinned their hopes on the likes of Chile's blossoming talent Alexis Sanchez, although he was overshadowed on Monday by Arturo Vidal's superb headed winner against Mexico.

Then there are those who have used the Copa stage to create a profile out of nowhere, such as the Venezuela midfielder Tomas Rincon, known to supporters of his German side Hamburg but whose qualities had passed almost unnoticed at international level.

That was until he produced a man-of-the-match performance against the Brazilians with his tireless running and intelligent probing.

Messi may shine brightly for Barcelona but continually suffers from shades of grey when he dons the sky blue and white for Argentina.

Conversely, the 23-year-old Rincon may only ever be destined for journeyman status at club level - but at the Copa, he is seizing the opportunity to show that, in his case, making the transition to the international arena holds no fears.