The hosts hope to defend the title they won two years ago on home soil, while the underdog Albiceleste are desperate to end a run of six lost finals and win major silverware for the first time since 1993.
The match, which took place on the eve of Euro 2020’s final, is also notable for two players in particular.
Both Neymar and Lionel Messi have had outstanding Copa campaigns so far, but only one can win at the Estadio Maracana.
It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that their final meeting is the most significant in terms of pure star power since Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo clashed at the 1998 World Cup, with both men at the pinnacle of their illustrious careers.
The two No.10s have the closest of friendships. When the Brazilian moved to Barcelona from Santos, they clicked instantly on and off the field, and when Luis Suarez joined to complete the trio a year later, they formed one of the most potent forward partnerships in football history.
That friendship has survived Neymar’s subsequent move to PSG and has been the driving force behind the persistent rumours linking him to a return to Camp Nou.
“When I needed help the most, the best in the world showed me affection,” Neymar told Esporte Espectacular in a 2019 interview, while also revealing the Argentine’s advice to newcomers in Catalunya: “Don’t be afraid of me or anyone at the club.”
“[Thinking about returning] is difficult. To be honest, it’s extremely difficult because Leo was such a special person for me in Barcelona.”
Separation has also not worked out well for either party at the club level.
Since the pair’s triumph in 2015, the Champions League has remained elusive for both Barcelona and PSG, with a slew of seemingly suitable replacements – Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann – doing little more than draining the Blaugrana’s cash flow to its current pitiful state.
On the international stage, however, both Neymar and Lionel Messi have been nothing short of spectacular this Copa.
Lucas Paqueta and Lautaro Martinez both scored their sides’ only goals in the semi-finals, thanks to the inventiveness and pinpoint passing of their illustrious teammates, as Brazil advanced with a 1-0 win over Chile and Argentina pipped Colombia on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Messi now has four goals and five assists for the tournament, directly contributing to nine of his team’s eleven goals, while Neymar, so often the man who brings dazzle and surprise to this Brazil team that values efficiency over flowing football, is only slightly further back with two and three, despite having played one game fewer than his former teammate.
Saturday, then, brings together the Copa’s two best players, a six-time Ballon d’Or winner and the man widely regarded as his successor as the best in the world, and, as befits any big South American clash, there will be no place on the Maracana pitch for faint hearts.
“I want to play Argentina in the final. There are a lot of people I know there. And Brazil will win,” Neymar told reporters after Brazil’s victory over Chile on Monday, raising the stakes for the final.
Messi, on the other hand, was more cautious. “Brazil with Neymar is going to be extremely difficult,” he hinted on Tuesday. “We know what Ney is capable of doing on his own.”
When it comes to national pride, the Argentina idol demonstrated that old club ties can fall by the wayside. Infuriated by the rough treatment he received from Colombia throughout the game, he mercilessly jeered ex-Barca colleague Yerry Mina when the defender erred from the spot.
“Dance now, go on, dance now!” he yelled, referring to Mina’s trademark celebration shimmy – a move that appeared to be motivated by his solidarity with Suarez, whose Uruguay side had lost to Colombia in the previous round and were unimpressed with his penalty-spot jig.
No such fireworks can be expected from Leo and Neymar, but neither player nor any of their teammates will give up an inch in a game that is likely to involve intricate tricks and hard knocks in equal measure.
“Messi is, as I’ve always said, the best player I’ve ever seen play and he’s a great friend, but now we’re in a final, we’re rivals,” Neymar told reporters ahead of the game. I want to win, and I really want to win this Copa America title, which would be my first.
“Messi has been searching for his first national team title for many years, and whenever we [Brazil] were not present at the tournament, I cheered for him. That’s what I was hoping for when he faced Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.
“Now that Brazil is involved in the dispute, our friendship is jeopardized. We still have a lot of respect for each other, but only one of us can win.”
For either man, the stakes could not be higher.
For Messi, the long-awaited first Argentina title will solidify his place alongside Diego Maradona in the Albiceleste pantheon of idols.
For Neymar, who missed out on the 2019 season due to injury, this is a chance to prove once and for all that the comparisons to his great friend and mentor have always been justified.
A significant boost in their quest for the Ballon d’Or – the Brazilian’s first – is also on the table for both men.
And for South American football, not to mention neutrals around the world, this Copa America, beset as it has been by Covid, organizational chaos, a lack of atmosphere in empty stadiums, and refereeing controversy, the chance to finish with a flourish, with two genuine superstars putting on an unforgettable show.