Copa America 2024: A beginner's guide

Grab your burgers, hot dogs and root beers because, for the second time in its history, Copa America is being held in the United States.

But what is this Copa America, I hear you ask?

It’s only the longest-running continental football competition, one that has played host to some of the greatest legends of the game including Lionel Messi, Pele, Diego Maradona and Neymar.

This summer, across 12 American cities and 14 stadiums, South America’s finest — including Brazil, Uruguay and a Messi-led Argentina — will compete again to take the title of ‘Champions of South America (and Others)’.

To round out the numbers, the United States, Mexico and a few other North and Central American countries have been invited to join the fun, too.

Here, The Athletic has broken down everything you need to know about the tournament, from the favourites and the format to its 108-year history filled with brilliance and drama.


How to follow Copa America on The Athletic


Where the tournament is being played and where it’s been held previously

The last time it was held Stateside was in 2016 for Copa America ‘Centenario’, the tournament’s 100th anniversary.

Though that tournament ended badly for Messi, losing out on a first senior international trophy in a penalty shootout to Chile, it provided the iconic moment where he endeared himself to the people of Argentina by breaking down in tears on the pitch.


Messi sits deflated and defeated after the 2016 final (Hector Vivas/LatinContent via Getty Images)

He’s since added a World Cup and a Copa America to his trophy cabinet, so don’t bet on those theatrics again.

This year, the final will be held at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, home of the Miami Dolphins. It will be one of 14 stadiums used for the tournament across 12 cities: East Rutherford, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, Kansas City, Arlington, Houston, Austin, Glendale, Las Vegas, Inglewood and Santa Clara.

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Other than 2016 and this year, Copa America has only ever been held in South America.

In 1984, CONMEBOL, football’s governing body in South America, began rotating the right to host the tournament among its members, with the first rotation culminating in 2007 in Venezuela.

The second rotation began in 2011, but hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics proved too much for Brazil, which was scheduled to host Copa America in 2015. Chile eventually hosted that tournament, and Brazil took the responsibility in 2019 and 2021.

Argentina has hosted more editions than any other country (nine times), most recently in 2011. Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela are the only CONMEBOL nations that have not hosted it more than once.

How many times has each nation hosted?

Nation

  

Hosted

  

First

  

Most recent

  

Argentina

9

1916

2011

Uruguay

7

1917

1995

Chile

7

1920

2015

Brazil

6

1919

2021

Peru

6

1927

2004

Ecuador

3

1947

1993

No host

3

1975

1983

Bolivia

2

1963

1997

United States

2

2016

2024

Paraguay

1

1999

Colombia

1

2001

Venezuela

1

2007


Copa America format

This summer, the 16-team tournament will begin with four groups of four teams. After each team has played their group opposition once, the top two will advance.

During the group phase, teams earn three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero if they lose. If you’re anti-draw, we advise you to wait until the knockout stage, where there must be a winner. If the scores are tied after 90 minutes, extra time is used, and if the scores are still level after two 15-minute halves, the match will be decided using penalty kicks.

The knockout stage consists of three rounds: the quarter-finals, semi-final and final, one fewer round than the European Championship. In the quarter-final stage, teams that finished top of their group will play against a team that finished second. If a team progresses past that stage, they will play the semi-final. If they’re successful there, the July 14 final awaits.

If this is your first Copa America, count yourself lucky. It is not usually this way.

In 2021, there were only 10 participants, meaning two five-team groups, each playing four group games. The top four from each group made it to the knockout stage, thus eliminating only two teams in the group phase. This year is only the second time there have been 16 competing nations, with 12 being the most common since guest nations were introduced in 1993.

More on those later.


Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli is in the Brazil squad (Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images)

The teams taking part

  • Argentina (CONMEBOL)
  • Bolivia (CONMEBOL)
  • Brazil (CONMEBOL)
  • Chile (CONMEBOL)
  • Colombia (CONMEBOL)
  • Ecuador (CONMEBOL)
  • Paraguay (CONMEBOL)
  • Peru (CONMEBOL)
  • Uruguay (CONMEBOL)
  • Venezuela (CONMEBOL)
  • Jamaica (CONCACAF)
  • Mexico (CONCACAF)
  • Panama (CONCACAF)
  • United States (CONCACAF)
  • Canada (CONCACAF)
  • Costa Rica (CONCACAF)

Groups

Group A: Argentina, Peru, Chile, Canada

Group B: Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Jamaica

Group C: USMNT, Uruguay, Panama, Bolivia

Group D: Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica


Most successful, least successful

Uruguay are international football’s perennial overachievers, consistently performing well in tournaments despite a population of only around 3.5 million.

They won the tournament’s first edition on their way to collecting six of the first nine and 15 in total, a record they share with Argentina.

Like Uruguay, Argentina had most of their success before the tournament changed its name from the South American Football Championship in 1975, winning 12 of their 15 trophies before 1960. In 2021, however, they got their hands on the trophy again, inspired by Messi, who was seven when Argentina previously won the competition in 1993.

Over the past three decades, Brazil have been the dominant team in South America, collecting five of their nine trophies since ending a 40-year drought in 1989. They were back-to-back winners in 1997, 1999, 2004 and 2007, off the back of a golden generation of Brazilian talent, including Ballon d’Or winners Ronaldo (not the superstar from Portugal), Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka.

Chile had a golden spell in the mid-2010s, winning back-to-back trophies in 2015 and 2016, the only two wins in their history. Paraguay and Peru have also won it a couple of times, and Bolivia and Colombia have one each, both winning as host nations.

Ecuador and Venezuela are the only CONMEBOL nations that have never won the trophy. They have come relatively close, finishing fourth in the 1993 and 2011 editions but have never reached the final.

However, Venezuela have written history in a less desirable way. They hold the dishonour of not winning a single match in 12 consecutive participations from 1975 to 2004, and are the only South American team to rank outside the top 10 of the tournament’s all-time rankings, surpassed by Mexico, a frequent guest nation.


Guest nations

Unlike UEFA, Europe’s governing body, which has 55 member nations and holds qualifiers for their 32-team equivalent, CONMEBOL is FIFA’s smallest confederation with 10 teams. As a result, all South American teams automatically qualify for the tournament, and guest nations are usually called from around the world to make up the numbers.

For the 1993 tournament, CONMEBOL decided to add a rotating cast of guest nations to the core of 10 teams. This allowed for an added knockout round, two extra games, higher viewing figures, and… more money.

While it has yet to happen, the inclusion of guest nations opens the possibility that a team outside of South America could win the continent’s premier sports tournament. Historically, the most likely to upset the apple cart has been Mexico, who have reached the final twice. The USMNT have done pretty well themselves, reaching the semi-finals in 1995 and 2016.


USMNT will hope to ruffle some feathers at Copa America (Click Thompson/Getty Images)

The stars who will be playing

Yes, Messi will be in action. Despite completing his football bucket list in 2022 by winning the World Cup in Qatar a year after winning Copa America, the Inter Miami star has committed to playing in his seventh this year.

Not that he needs any more accolades, but when Messi steps foot in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Argentina’s first group game on June 20, he will break the record for the leading number of appearances in the tournament. The match will be his 35th, surpassing the total set by Chile goalkeeper Sergio Livingstone. If he scores five while he’s there, he’ll also break the goalscoring record of 17, jointly-held by his compatriot Norberto Mendez and Brazil’s Zizinho. Both records have stood since 1953.

Brazil are without Neymar, so Real Madrid forward Vinicius Jr will take the mantle as the team’s attacking leader. But do not fear: Alisson, Gabriel Martinelli and Bruno Guimaraes will be among those to represent the Premier League for the five-time World Cup winners.

Liverpool duo Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez should star for Colombia and Uruguay and Moises Caicedo will headline for Ecuador.

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MLS players in Copa America

Messi is among several stars based in the United States who will feature at Copa America this summer, though some squads are yet to be announced at the time of writing.

Orlando City stalwart Pedro Gallese is expected to star for Peru in goal, and 2023 MLS All-Star midfielder Jose Martinez will likely perform his role in the midfield engine room for Venezuela as he does for the Philadelphia Union.

While Luis Suarez, Messi’s Miami team-mate, was not named in the squad for Uruguay’s 4-0 pre-tournament thrashing of Mexico, Cristian Olivera (LAFC) and Orlando City pair Cesar Araujo and Facundo Torres are expected to fly the MLS flag for Uruguay at the tournament.


MLS plans during Copa America

With all those MLS players being called up for international duty this summer, surely MLS Commissioner Don Garber will pause league play, right?

Right?

“We can’t afford (to shut the league down for Copa America),” Garber stated in his league address on the eve of the 2023 MLS Cup final. “If we have to shut the league down (and) lose games, it impacts our players, it impacts our partners, it impacts our fans, it impacts everything that MLS has to deliver for all of our stakeholders. That being said, we’ve got to manage through that process, be clever and creative, and figure out how to reconfigure the schedule with all these different events to make it work.”

Nothing says serving your fans like forcing teams to field sides without their best players. For example, Miami will play the Columbus Crew, the MLS Cup holders, on July 20, one day before Copa America kicks off. For that game, Miami will be without Messi.


What Maradona and Pele didn’t win

Almost every South American superstar has won Copa America, except for two of the greatest ever: Maradona and Pele.

Maradona appeared in three Copa Americas (1979, 1987 and 1989) but never got over the line. His best performance came in 1987 on home soil, where he scored three goals in four matches, including a brace in the second group game against Ecuador. That was only enough to get to the semi-final stage, losing 1-0 against eventual winners Uruguay.


Diego Maradona playing for Argentina against Brazil in Copa America 1989 (Antonia Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

Pele gave himself even less chance, appearing in just one Copa America in 1958. As a 19-year-old, he finished as top scorer with eight goals and won the best player award, but Brazil finished second to Argentina in a seven-team round-robin. Imagine if he’d have played as many as Messi.

Let’s not go there.


How to watch

Fox Sports holds the English-language rights in the United States and will broadcast every game from the tournament on its Fox, FS1 and FS2 channels.

The USMNT’s opening group games against Bolivia and Panama will be broadcast on Fox at 6pm ET, while their third group fixture against Uruguay will be on FS1. Every Brazil and Argentina game is on FS1, while Mexico’s group ties will be split between Fox and FS1.

The UK broadcaster is yet to be confirmed, but BBC held the rights in 2021.


The favourites

Argentina are on an international tournament winning streak and they are favourites to win again this summer in the United States. Despite being without Neymar, Brazil are Argentina’s most obvious competitor, and there will be little surprise if they add to their nine Copa America trophies this year.

Uruguay are slightly behind the elite duo but have the talent to go all the way. Outside of those three, Colombia are the pick of the dark horses. The United States have quality and could reach the semi-finals if a favourable knockout route presents itself, but the final might be a game too far for Gregg Berhalter’s young squad.

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(Top photo: Argentina and Lionel Messi after winning Copa America in 2021; by Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

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