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The Copa America

Infographic of the Copa America

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For many, learning that the longest-running national team competition in the world happens in South America is quite a surprise.  From the start in 1916, the elegant Copa America trophy has been the best-known prize in all of soccer below the equator.  It’s fair to say that, if the tournament had started in Europe instead, it might be nearly as famous as the World Cup instead of third or fourth on the list.  Thanks to a host of international stars like Leo Messi and Pato, as well as participants from North America from time to time, its reputation on the world scene is secure for years to come.

History

Just prior to the inaugural competition in 1916, the Foreign Relations Minister of Argentina presented CONMEBOL, the continental soccer federation, with the beautiful Copa America.  Costing just 3,000 Swiss francs at the time, it was significantly less expensive than the Jules Rimet Trophy given to the first World Cup winner in 1930 (even when adjusted for inflation).  The cup has been awarded to the victorious side in every edition for almost a hundred years, first for the South American Championship and since 1975 for the namesake tournament, making it the oldest continuously-contested for by national teams anywhere.

The design itself might be said to reflect touches of the classic Grecian urn, which is rather appropriate considering how many South American soccer players would die to get their hands on the trophy!  Unlike European trophies of similar standing, there is a bit more flair to the barrel and opening.  The base, for example, sweeps up with a slight twist to meet the central cylinder, which has a simple pattern around the bottom and intricate bit of engraving circling the top.  Also, it has no handles, meaning captains have to make sure they have a secure grip before hoisting it above their heads in triumph.

To further differentiate it from the prize awarded in countries half a world away, the wooden platform the trophy is built on holds plaques engraved with each winning nation’s name – such that it has been expanded two separate times after almost a century of competition.  Whereas other regions etch the champions onto the barrel, it seems the South Americans have chosen to keep the gorgeous cup free from blemish.  The timeless design has remained unchanged, a fact the Buenos Aires jewelry shop that designed and constructed it would certainly be proud to know all these years later.

Unlike most major soccer tournaments involving national teams, the runners-up are also awarded a trophy.  In this case, the Copa Peru serves as a consolation prize to those who fall short of the ultimate goal for South American clubs.

Best Teams

Uruguay (1916-27)

In the South American Championship period, no nation was more dominant than Uruguay, thanks in large part to the early stranglehold they put on the trophy.  Winning six of the first eleven competitions and finishing as runners-up twice (not to mention a gold medal at the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics), this group, led by Pedro Petrone and others, would go on to win the first World Cup in 1930.

Argentina (1941-47)

The most dominant team of the World War II era won four tournaments and was runner-up once.  In the 1945 edition alone, the squad scored 21 goals on their way to the first of three straight victories, a feat that has not been matched in the decades since.  Led by Norberto Mendez, the Argentines overtook Uruguay as the leaders in most titles for more than a decade.

Peru (1975)

In an era when the tournament had no fixed venue and matches were spread across several months, this group managed to score 12 goals in five matches on the way to the country’s second success and first in nearly four decades.  Led by the tricky and powerful Teofilo Cubillas, this group would go on to repeat its quarterfinal appearance at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico when the next edition of  soccer’s grandest stage arrived in Argentina for the summer of 1978.

Brazil (1989-2007)

It almost seems unfair to call one team the best for nearly 20 years but, when compared to the relative lack of success by the Brazilians prior to this period, it’s easy to see why they ought to be included.  Featuring the likes of Careca, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Robinho over the course of nine tournaments, these teams were able to accomplish what legends like Pele, Jairzinho and Sócrates couldn’t while competing for the continent’s trophy: five wins and two runners-up finishes.

Winners

Uruguay (15; 1916-17, 1920, 1923-24, 1926, 1935, 1942, 1956, 1959, 1967, 1983, 1987, 1995, 2011)

Argentina (13; 1921, 1925, 1927, 1929, 1937, 1941, 1945-47, 1955, 1957, 1991, 1993)

Brazil (8; 1919, 1922, 1949, 1989, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007)

Paraguay (2; 1953, 1979)

Peru (2; 1939, 1975)

Colombia (1; 2001)

Bolivia (1; 1963)