International competition between South American nations had commenced in 1910, but the first official championships took place in 1916 to celebrate the centenary of Argentina’s independence. Chile, Uruguay and Brazil joined the hosts in the Campeonato Sudamericano de Selecciones. Uruguay became the first winners holding the hosts to a 0-0 draw in the final game to top the round robin table by a point.
The success of the tournament saw the South American Federation, CONMEBOL, decide to run the tournament on an annual basis, with Uruguay selected as the hosts of the second tournament, which they again won. A flu outbreak forced the 1918 tournament to be cancelled, but the tournament was played annually between the four nations for the next three years, Brazil clinching their first international title in 1920, and breaking the Uruguayans monopoly.
Paraguay became the fifth nation to take part, entering the 1921 tournament, although Chile pulled out. Argentina won the first of their record 14 titles with a clean sweep of the other nations on home turf. The continents big three of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, dominated the early years of the competition as they have done ever since. The 1926 edition saw Bolivia enter for the first time, a futile experience as they failed to collect a point as Uruguay swept the field to collect their sixth title.
The 1927 edition acted as a qualification tournament for the 1928 Olympic Games and saw Peru participate for the first time. Argentina won the first of two successive titles, triumphing over the Uruguayans both times, although Uruguay would gain revenge, reversing the result to win the first World Cup in 1930.
The World Cup had a massive impact on the competition, particularly a dispute between Argentina and Uruguay following that first final, and it would be six years before the tournament would be held again, with Uruguay continuing their dominance. The competition continued on a biennial basis from 1935 and the 1937 edition saw the first final, albeit a play-off, with Argentina and Brazil level at the end of the round-robin stage, Argentina winning 2-0 to claim a fifth title.
1939 saw a new champion as Peru won the tournament as hosts in a competition which included Ecuador for the first time. Since 1922 the tournament had seen nations show a certain level of indifference, with every competition seeing at least one of the major nations not competing, and the competition was about to enter a further period of erratic organization. The 1941 edition saw no trophy awarded to the champions Argentina (although it does count as one of their 14 titles) as the tournament was organised by Chile as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Santiago.
The tournament was played the following year, Uruguay triumphing before a three year hiatus during World War II. 1945-7 saw the tournament played annually, Argentina winning three titles in a row before a two year break with Brazil triumphing in 1949. The competitions irregularity continued with a gap of four years before Paraguay triumphed for the first time in 1953. After a two year break the competition became an annual event for the next three years before another three year gap to 1959. Pele was top scorer but Argentina held the Brazilians to a draw in the final game to win the title by a point.
Incredibly the competition was played again six months later, and unsurprisingly was not taken seriously. Only four teams travelled to Ecuador, and one of those, Brazil, sent a side comprising of players only from the state of Pernambuco, with Uruguay winning their 10th title. The tournament reverted to a four year cycle with Bolivia winning their only title at home and at altitude in 1963. The 1967 tournament featured a qualifying round for the first time, with Chile and Paraguay beating Colombia and Ecuador on aggregate to reach the tournament proper in Uruguay, where the hosts would claim an 11th title.
The competition then entered a hiatus of eight years, entering a new era when it was re-launched in 1975 as the Copa America.