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Inside France's World Cup ceremony

 By Tim Vickery

United States' Copa Centenario a turning point for CONCACAF's World Cup teams

Neymar gave a 7-year-old fan the surprise of a lifetime on Steve Harvey's talk show with a heartfelt message and signed Brazil jersey.

As the World Cup looms closer, a growing level of frustration in the United States soccer community would be understandable. But even though the U.S. national team will not be in Russia, the country can take some comfort from the role it played in shaping the road to the World Cup, especially as far as the South American teams are concerned.

Nowadays the Copa America is played every four years, kicking off a new cycle of competitive action. In the year after the World Cup there has been nothing but friendlies. The Copa helps whip teams into shape for the next batch of World Cup qualifiers, which get underway soon afterwards.

In this cycle, of course, there was the extra Copa -- the event to celebrate the centenary of the competition which took place across the United States in June 2016. At this point, six of the 18 rounds of World Cup qualifiers had been played. The tournament gave the teams a chance to regroup as they looked ahead to the remaining two thirds of the action.

Thankfully, what appeared to be the most significant change brought about by the Copa Centenario did not come to fruition. Dejected after yet another defeat in a final, Lionel Messi wandered away from the stadium in New Jersey, announcing his retirement from international football.

It was Argentina's good fortune -- and the World Cup's as well -- that he quickly rethought that proclamation and decided to give the competition one more try. Had he stayed away, then Argentina would almost certainly not have made it to Russia.

Messi's team had lost the Copa title to Chile after a penalty shootout, but the Copa Centenario proved to be something of a pyrrhic victory. It was Chile's third summer tournament in consecutive years -- and winning it obliged them to take part in a fourth, the 2017 Confederations Cup.

All this activity took its toll on a generation that had been together for a decade and were ageing together. They ran out of steam in the final rounds of World Cup qualification and missed out on Russia. At least they can look back on perhaps the most remarkable 90 minutes in the history of the Chile national team -- that extraordinary 7-0 quarterfinal thrashing of Mexico in Santa Clara.

Lionel Messi temporarily ended his international career after Argentina fell to Chile in the Copa Centenario final.

But it was in Foxborough, just outside Boston, that the Copa Centenario proved most influential. The final group game in the Gillette stadium cut two ways -- with both Peru and Brazil being able to claim long-term victory.

The only goal seemed clearly to have been punched in off the arm of Raul Ruidiaz. But however it came about, beating Brazil was a before-and-after moment for Peru. They picked up such confidence that they have now equalled the La Blanquirroja's all-time record unbeaten run -- and will break the record if they avoid defeat against Scotland in their send-off match in Lima at the end of next month.

The Copa Centenario was when Peru started to come together. It was where coach Ricardo Gareca could work with a back four that was entirely different from the one which started the qualification campaign; Aldo Corzo at right-back, Christian Ramos and Alberto Rodriguez in the middle and Miguel Trauco at right-back.

It was where Orlando City's Yoshimar Yotun, who previously had always been the team's left-back, was switched to midfield. And it was where the surprise breakout star of the qualification campaign, Edison Flores, was introduced.

A little left-footed midfielder, Flores proved adept at filling both attacking and defensive roles and -- generating surprising power in his shooting -- ended up as the team's joint top scorer of the qualifiers. None of this was clear going into the Copa Centenario, when it seemed that Peru were set to miss out on yet another World Cup.

Brazil's loss to Peru in the Copa Centenario group stage led to them to sack Dunga and hire Tite as his replacement.

In Brazil, meanwhile, it is now agreed that defeat was the best thing that could possibly have happened to the national team. After their astonishing collapse on home soil in the 2014 World Cup, Brazil made the bizarre decision to recall coach Dunga, whose snarling approach had made few friends when he was in charge from 2006 to 2010.

Fortunes did not improve. After six rounds of the Russia 2018 campaign, Brazil were down in sixth place, outside the qualifying slots. There was real fear that, for the first time ever, Brazil might not be present at a World Cup. Dunga was hanging by a thread.

He might have hung on for longer had things gone better in the Copa Centenario. But that defeat to Peru, and the failure to make the quarterfinals, was the last straw. He was sacked, and replaced by the man who really should have been given the job two years earlier.

If the story of Peru is one of a renewed team, that of Brazil is of a new coach. Because with few changes in personnel, Tite came in for Dunga, and the change was dramatic and immediate. The team that had been struggling were equipped with new ideas and suddenly started cruising and swaggering to the World Cup with 10 wins and 2 draws, scoring 30 goals and conceding just 3.

And so as fans of the U.S. national team gather to cast a melancholy gaze at the 2018 World Cup, they can console themselves that a little bit of what takes place in Russia can be attributed to events two years ago in a field outside Boston.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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