Neil Humphreys: Why these Copa stars must shine
As the Copa America kicks off tomorrow morning (Singapore time), NEIL HUMPHREYS picks out four key players who must deliver for their countries, their club careers and even their legacies
A COUNTRY FOR OLD MESSI
Every tournament that involves the GOAT inevitably leads to far too much bleating about Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and that one international trophy missing from the glittering resume.
So let's not bother. At this juncture, Lionel Messi's legacy is less important than his elderly status. He's a king among kids. He's 31 on June 24, but kicks off his latest quest for an Argentina trophy like an old headmaster trying to settle a new kindergarten class.
Fifteen of Argentina's 23-man squad have fewer than 15 international caps.
Their manager is a relative novice.
Always a bridesmaid and never a bride, Lionel Scaloni has been assistant coach, caretaker coach and got the full-time gig only three games ago.
As always, the Argentinians will look not to the dugout for inspiration, but to their imperious No. 10. Messi has three runners-up medals from his last four major international tournaments.
Despite scoring a record 67 goals for Argentina, the suspicion remains among countrymen that Messi saves his best for his beloved Catalans.
The boy who went to Barcelona left his heart there, according to cynical opinion.
Considering Messi dragged Argentina to the 2014 World Cup Final - see his late winner against Iran - and almost single-handedly secured their qualification for Russia 2018, the criticism seems unfair. If anything, Messi's tenacity ensured his longevity, qualities in short supply in the dressing room.
Argentina may be concerned that the end is near for Messi, but he brings a rare and priceless commodity this time around. Experience.
It's a familiar storyline, but his national team need him more than ever.
COUTINHO NEEDS AN ESCAPE PLAN
If confidence is the elixir of tournament life, then Philippe Coutinho must be preparing to die on the Copa America stage. He's shattered.
On the eve of Brazil hosting the tournament, the forgotten footballer conceded that his performances for Barcelona were a "lot worse" than he'd expected. He wasn't alone in that assessment.
The Catalans are already plotting a face-saving divorce. Perversely, the La Liga champions hope that Coutinho dominates for Brazil in Neymar's absence, seizing the chance to play creative conduit.
That was his role at Liverpool, where attacks flowed through him. But the Reds tinkered and improved after his departure, and lifted the Champions League trophy.
Coutinho slipped into the shadows at the Nou Camp, unable to cope with the pressure of succeeding Neymar and emulating Messi.
Luckily, he has to do only one of those things in the Copa America. And a decent tournament may allow Barcelona to cut their losses - he was bought for £142 million (S$246m) in January 2018, he'd be sold for less than £100m now - and Coutinho can put his fragile temperament back together again.
His five goals and two assists in 34 La Liga matches last season leave him with only one option.
He must shine for the Selecao.
FIX THE SCHIZOPHRENIC SANCHEZ
Last week, a movie starring Alexis Sanchez was released in his native Chile.
It's called Mi Amigo Alexis, which roughly translates to My Nightmare in Manchester. Well, that would be the title of any documentary chronicling Sanchez's time at Manchester United.
His real story is a tale of two strikers. In Chile, Sanchez plays a legitimate idol to millions in a movie, the most capped player of all time, record goal-scorer and key performer in two Copa America triumphs.
In Manchester, he's that muscular guy who patrols the left side with all the enthusiasm of a cleaner mopping a hawker centre floor.
He's called Nino Maravilla (wonder kid) in Chile.
He's called a colossal waste of money in Manchester. Somehow, his fabulous ratio at Arsenal - 60 goals in 123 league games - has dropped to just one in 10 at United, where he barely features.
A decent Copa America might persuade Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to give a final chance to the 30-year-old plodder, or palm him off to a gullible buyer.
Either way, the Copa America gives Sanchez a shot at merging the movie star in Chile with the fading footballer in Manchester.
BRAZIL 2019 CAN SALVAGE BRAZIL 2014 STAR
A soft spot remains for James Rodriguez. My sitting inside the Maracana on June 28, 2014, right in line with the Colombian as he took flight, remains a career highlight.
His stunning volley against Uruguay was voted the goal of the 2014 World Cup and a star was born. Just 22 at the time, Rodriguez seemed destined for a seat at the top table.
But he was never comfortable once he got there. Moves to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich teased us with glimpses of his potential, but the complete package never came together.
Five years on from that magical night in Rio and a sense of frustration remains.
He's never escaped the shackles of his own youthful promise. His club career is at crossroads.
But his national coach Carlos Queiroz gives him the kind of freedom he rarely enjoys at club level and Rodriguez always shines brightest for Colombia.
An international tournament in Brazil made his career. Another one might just save it.