When Lionel Messi steps out onto the pitch for tonight’s Copa America final, it could be his last chance to win a trophy with Argentina. Standing in his way, as he attempts to end his country’s 28-year trophy drought, will be a familiar face in former Barcelona teammate Neymar.
Brazil is the current defending champion and boasts the formidable record of having won every previous edition played on home soil — this year’s tournament was also moved to Brazil just 13 days before kick-off after co-hosts Colombia and Argentina were stripped of hosting rights.
Few would expect an underwhelming Argentina side to go far at next year’s World Cup in Qatar and Messi will be 37 the next time the Copa America comes around in 2024.
Widely considered one of the greatest players of all time, Messi’s relationship with the Argentine national team and its fans has been fraught at times.
In the past, after some fairly lackluster performances, he has been accused by some of caring more about Barcelona than Argentina, something Messi has always strongly denied.
Over the years, however, he has gone on to become a revered figure in his homeland. That was never more obvious than when Messi announced his retirement following defeat in the 2016 Copa America final — the second year in a row Argentina had lost to Chile on penalties — and the entire country united in a successful attempt to convince him to pull on the blue and white shirt again.
At times, Messi has single-handedly carried the national team over the years, notably during qualification process to the 2018 World Cup, during which Argentina flirted with the possibility of failing to reach the finals. During the semifinal penalty shootout win over Colombia, Messi — who has four goals and five assists in this Copa America — once again showed the type of leader he has become for Argentina.
National broadcaster TyC Sport featured a ‘Messi-Cam’ during the shootout, which was focused on the Argentine captain the entire time. It showed his intense reaction to each penalty Argentina scored, while he was also the first to console Rodrigo De Paul after his miss.
However, it was his reaction to Yerry Mina’s miss that generated the biggest reaction on social media. The Colombia defender has become known for his somewhat over the top celebrations after scoring in shootouts and after his penalty was saved by Emiliano Martinez, Messi could be seen shouting “dance now” at Mina during his entire walk back to the center circle.
Messi exuberance was a stark contrast to the last time he featured in a penalty shootout for Argentina. After missing his penalty in the final against Chile in 2016, Messi was doubled over on the turf and appeared to be close to vomiting. Martinez was unquestionably the hero of Wednesday’s tie, saving three of Colombia’s penalties and the Aston Villa goalkeeper was mobbed by Messi and his teammates.
Saturday’s showpiece will be the first time since 2007 that Brazil and Argentina have faced off in a Copa America final, incidentally Messi’s first with the national team. There will be 5,500 spectators at the iconic Maracana stadium to watch it, the first time fans will be able to attend matches this tournament.
The attendees will have to show a negative Covid-19 PCR test, wear masks, and maintain two meters distance from while inside.
Brazil will be hoping for a repeat of that comfortable 3-0 win and go into this match as the favorite. Under head coach Tite, Brazil is a long way from playing the ‘beautiful football’ of old, but this side is pragmatic and dogged, a style that has brought considerable success over the past five years. That culminated in victory at the 2019 Copa America, the country’s first piece of major silverware since 2007.
Brazil has never quite clicked into top gear during this tournament, but has found success built on a stingy defense; the team has conceded just two goals all tournament and none so far in the knockout stages. Even when down to 10 men for the entire second half in the quarterfinal against Chile, Brazil never looked like conceding a goal.
Neymar’s legacy with the Brazilian national team is already guaranteed to be one of glory. Not only has he led the team to Olympic and Copa America glory on home soil, he will more than likely finish his career’s as Brazil’s greatest ever goalscorer, currently just nine goals behind Pele.
Should Messi lead Argentina to glory, however, it would certainly alter his legacy entirely.