The summers of 2014 and 2015 were months-long coming out parties for a generation of South American stars.
James Rodriguez, an impressive but largely unsung number ten, took the form he’d developed at AS Monaco and turned up the wick and burned brightest at the World Cup in Brazil, scoring the most memorable goal in a tournament full of memorable goals and earning himself a huge move (with the obligatory big contract) to Real Madrid.
The next summer was Alexis Sanchez’s turn. He fought, growled and bullied from the front in a Chile side which won their first ever major trophy, scoring a massive-granite-balls panenka winning penalty against Argentina in the shootout which decided the final.
Sanchez was a more globally known quantity at this point – you don’t play for Barcelona by collecting tokens on cereal boxes – but there were doubts about his ability to lead, and to play at the highest level as a major cog in the team rather than being a black hole into which the ball disappeared. His first season at Arsenal was a rip-roaring success, but the 2015 tournament was his crowning glory.
Until 2016, that is, when he went back for the centenary tournament and dragged Chile kicking and screaming to the title again – being named the competition’s best player for his troubles.
James’ big move went wrong almost instantly. Real Madrid are a club who depend on the whims of their president like few others, and the Colombian’s early years at the Bernabeu were shaken by managerial changes, coaches who didn’t want or trust him and – to be fair – some issues with his own attitude to training.
He was a key part of Zinedine Zidane’s treble-winning squad, but only insofar as he allowed the Frenchman to put out a strong ‘B’ team when he wanted to rest his first choice players for away trips.
A loan to Bayern Munich followed, but two decent seasons in Bavaria weren’t enough to convince the German champions to trigger the purchase option in the deal. His future is uncertain; too expensive for a mid-tier club, the label of ‘damaged goods’ too much for those at the top.
He came into the Copa America this summer with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove – both to the clubs who gave up on him and the Colombian fans who didn’t. As he orchestrated a 2-0 win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina, a small pocket of Colombians in a little Parisian bar beamed and pounded on the tables. Never mind if Europe’s so-called elite wrote him off, their boy was back.
Sanchez’s last few years have taken him on a different route to James, but they’ve ended in the same place. He starred at Arsenal for three years, often their solitary standout player in a lake of stagnant mediocrity, but slowly turned his teammates against him. He was selfish, made poor decisions, hogged the ball and – worst of all – his performances went through the floor when he decided that he wanted out.
He got his move 18 months ago, becoming the best paid player in English football when Manchester United picked him up and sent Henrikh Mkhitaryan the other way. Except…he’d forgotten how to play. His first six months had people tying the ‘flop’ flag to a piece of wood in preparation, but even the most pessimistic would have struggled to foresee just how badly his first full season at Old Trafford would be.
Even as both Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave him chances in different roles to make something of himself, to make him worth that £500,000-a-week price tag, nothing happened. He became absolutely unpickable. In 27 games in all competitions, he scored twice.
The Sun ran a story at the end of the season, saying that Sanchez would be returning for United’s pre-season training before his teammates. Not in an effort to earn his place in the team back, but to convince another team to take a punt on him. The words ‘Copa America’ were never mentioned, the tournament an afterthought.
The date given for Sanchez’s planned return in the piece was 2nd July. At time of writing, it’s 30th June and United’s great flop is gearing up to put his team into the final of the South American continental tournament for the third time in a row, turning back the clock and playing the leader that he’d been in 2015 and 2016.
Of course, there was another South American knocking around in those halcyon summers. Neymar. You might have heard of him. Brazil’s unquestioned talisman coming into the 2014 World Cup on home soil at the age of just 22, he took his side through back-to-back knockout games over Sanchez’s Chile and James’ Colombia, but broke his back in a nasty challenge against the latter.
His tournament was over, and his team crashed out in their very next match in the most humiliating defeat ever suffered by a host nation at a major tournament, being taken apart in a 7-1 loss to Germany.
In many ways, the 7-1 added to his legend. ‘Just 22,’ they said, ‘and already so important that the hosts can fall apart so greatly without him.’
He became part of the modern age’s most deadly attacking trios with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, the ‘MSN’ at Barcelona, but international glory was harder to come by. He was suspended at the Copa America for an argument with a referee after the full-time whistle, but did lead Brazil to their first ever Olympic title in 2016 – the only FIFA-organised competition the country had never won.
Being at Barcelona left him in Messi’s shadow though, and he moved to Paris Saint-Germain one year after his Olympic glory for a world record €222m. He’s barely been fit since; breaking his foot twice, suffering two torn ankle ligaments, and alienating people with his off-field antics. He’s ceasing to be a decisive figure in his homeland, because more or less everyone agrees that he’s a nob.
This Copa could’ve been his chance to get them back on his side, winning the tournament at home, joining Alexis and James with a raised middle finger to the critics. Alas, he’s injured. Again. The wait must go on.