With Lionel Messi in your team, you usually win. Ask Barcelona fans and they’ll vouch for it. But Argentina fans may think differently.
It’s a footballing riddle of sorts. In a team that historically has been at its best when built around a superstar, a phenomenal player like a Maradona or a Kempes, Messi has found success hard to come by. But at Barcelon,. where the emphasis is often more on the team than any one individual player no matter how brilliant he is, the Argentine great has won everything possible.
Sometimes certain things are just meant to happen while some are just not.
In the case of Messi, an international title with Argentina appeared to be the one that might get away.
But Messi won his war against fate. Argentina beat bitter rivals Brazil in their own backyard in the 2021 Copa America final to end a 28-year-long wait for a major international title and help one of their greatest players avoid the ignominy of being an underachiever in international football.
Messi didn’t score or assist in the final, unlike previous greats in a triumphant Argentine team, but the Barcelona man’s contribution in getting Argentina to the final was no less significant. He was directly involved in nine out of the eleven goals that his team had scored before the final. And despite missing out on attacking returns in the showpiece, he matched Maradona’s feat of having a hand in 75% of the goals that Argentina scored at the 1986 World Cup at the 2021 Copa America.
Messi finished top of both goalscoring and assists charts at Copa America with a goal contribution of 1.42 per ninety minutes. The second best in this category was Neymar with a goal contribution of 1 per ninety minutes. The Argentine was simply head and shoulders above the rest.
The 34-year-old was thus fittingly named player of the tournament, during which he also equalled and then broke Javier Mascherano’s record of 147 caps for Argentina, setting a new mark of 151 on Saturday.
His four goals during the competition took him to 76 for his country, just one off the all-time South American mark set by Pele for Brazil.
Messi’s influence though was much more than his statistics. His presence lifted the entire team giving them hope that despite their poor record in Brazil, they could end their trophy drought. There was also the additional motivation of helping Messi, a hero to many of his teammates, win an international honour with Argentina.
“We gave it to Messi, who deserved it the most,” said goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
While Messi’s flair was on show all throughout the tournament, he showed a great appetite to fight it out on the pitch when things didn’t go his way, something he had been criticised for not doing in the past.
In the final, the Barcelona captain was heavily marshalled by the Brazilians. It restricted his influence on the game in terms of a creative force, but he made it up with his work rate. He ran tirelessly throughout the game tracking opponents, tackling them and at times launching counter-attacks. He was happy to attract more Brazilian bodies in order to create space for his teammates. He was ready to sacrifice himself. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni later even revealed that Messi played the final with a tight hamstring.
In the semi-final too, Messi played through the pain. He shed blood from his ankle in a bruising semi-final win over Colombia but continued to battle on playing the entire 120 minutes of the match and then scoring in the shootout.
“If Argentines knew him like we (the players and staff) do, they would love him even more than they already do,” said coach Scaloni.
Messi’s reaction at the full-time whistle said it all. He was down on his knees with tears in his eyes. He had given it his all not just on the night, not just during the tournament but all through his career. After 16 years without any reward and a lot of heartbreaks, Messi was a winner in an Argentina shirt at last.
A player for whom nothing on the football pitch had ever seemed difficult, had to do it the hard way. Having spent most finals in club football making opponents chase him all over the pitch, Messi won his first trophy in international football by chasing opponents himself. It’s a performance that not many will remember for years to come but certainly one which Messi, among his several mesmerising displays, will cherish the most.
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