Angel Di Maria scored the game-winning goal, but no one helped the Albiceleste more than their experienced captain.
Finally, the big day arrived, and it did so in the most dramatic of ways.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina team beat Brazil 1-0 to win the Copa America title in the Selecao’s own backyard, putting an end to years of international agony.
And, after playing every minute of the tournament, pushing his bruised body to new limits amid the flying tackles of South America’s fearsome defenders, there is no doubt that the 34-year-old wizard – who was just seven years old when the Albiceleste last won this competition in 1993 – deserved to win it.
While Messi had been in superb form leading up to the final, so had his friend-turned-enemy Neymar, who had his own drive for triumph after missing out on the Copa America trophy two years ago at the Maracana.
Furthermore, the Barcelona star had yet to face a team of the caliber of the Selecao, who had breezed through the competition on home soil to set up this eagerly awaited decider.
Those who tuned in expecting a feast of flowing football between these two heavyweights were quickly disappointed. In a tough first half, Argentina and Brazil went toe-to-toe, with play scarcely progressing due to a barrage of fouls from both sides.
To break the deadlock, the visitors needed only one stunning play, an oasis in this football desert. Rodrigo De Paul unleashed a brilliantly weighted lofted pass from inside his own half, just eluding Renan Lodi, one of the Selecao’s weak links, to set up surprise starting inclusion Angel Di Maria.
In this Copa, the Paris Saint-Germain star has spent more time on the bench, but he was perfectly placed to take advantage of the only clear chance of the first half, chipping over the onrushing Ederson and sending the few Argentina fans who were lucky enough to get tickets to the final into raptures.
Messi was one of the first to congratulate him, despite having limited opportunities to make an impact due to the persistent scrutiny of yellow shirts, he nevertheless posed a constant threat every time he touched the ball.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi Brazil
He and the entire Argentina team then breathed a sigh of relief minutes later when Di Maria seemed to damage his ankle after treading awkwardly on the Maracana pitch while chasing an almost identical ball. Thankfully, for a player who has had so many injuries while playing for his country, it was only a minor scare.
Perhaps this was proof that the Albiceleste’s fortunes were finally changing?
Despite being behind, Tite changed his tight strategy, freeing up Neymar with the addition of Roberto Firmino and pushing the ball forward slightly. The threat posed by the reigning champs rose as well: six minutes into the second period, Richarlison thought he had tied the game with an opportune rebound finish, only to have the play called out for offside.
Emiliano Martinez, Argentina’s penalty hero, came to the Everton forward’s rescue seconds later, stopping him from exploiting the space behind left-back Marcos Acuna. The Albiceleste defense, which is inconsistent at best, creaked and croaked but just managed to stay in one piece, much to the chagrin of the eager hosts.
Argentina is the winner of Copa America
Despite this, Messi continued to scurry and scamper past defenders, ensuring that Brazil’s attention was never diverted from the back as the minutes passed. And, for the first time in a Copa final, he didn’t have to fight the good fight, since Di Maria and the brilliant De Paul provided him with the companionship he craves. Indeed, the new Atletico Madrid transfer came close to adding a second assist when he sent Leo clean through on the break, only for the star to see the ball catch under his typically deadly feet and Ederson dive in to clear it. He is, after all, human, despite all appearances to the contrary.
The final whistle blew without Messi being able to leave his indelible mark on the game. But it didn’t seem to bother him in the least. After so many heartbreaking defeats in international football, the captain’s joy was palpable, and probably no one in the game deserved it more than him.
La Pulga is the South American champion after nearly two decades and four finals, the symbol of a young, confident Argentina team that compensates for its lack of star power with an unwavering feeling of camaraderie and unity. But without Messi, their path to Maracana triumph would have been lot more hazy; today, he has cemented his place with Diego Maradona and the rest of Argentina’s greats.