CHENNAI: As soon as the final whistle blew at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro – Brazil’s home turf – on Saturday night, a bevvy of Argentina players, donning their traditional white-and-sky-blue jersey, charged in wild ecstasy towards one man. A man whose quest for a major international trophy (Argentina won the Olympic gold in 2008) has finally ended 16 long years after his debut, courtesy of a 1-0 win over arch-rivals Brazil in the Copa America final. No prizes for guessing, of course, that it was an emotionally charged Lionel Messi that his teammates assembled around. Not only because the Argentine demigod was their captain and star performer through this Copa America but because each member of that squad understood what a trophy in Argentina colours meant to the little man.
“I said I'd rather have it won for him (Messi) than for me. Today, we were able to give it to him. It was what he wanted the most in his life,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who was no less a hero in this tournament, would say minutes after the final.
While the pain of not winning a major trophy has haunted Argentina for the last 28 years, Messi has been part of that ordeal for the past 16 years. And through much of that fluctuating journey at the international level, the absence of silverware has hung like a millstone around his neck. His greatness and achievements at the club level have been unparalleled, but critics of the man held his inability to deliver the same for Argentina against him. His genius and wizardry with the ball at his feet wouldn’t be enough it seemed. The gold standard, of course, had been set by the late Diego Maradona, who delivered the 1986 World Cup for Argentina with extraordinary individual performances.
And for a long time, it seemed like things just wouldn’t fall into place for Messi at the international level. Often, the joy and childlike enthusiasm that Messi sported while playing for Barcelona seemed to be missing for Argentina. Was it a burden that Messi will never be able to conquer?
Messi himself perhaps thought so. The feeling was heightened after a string of losses in finals that culminated in his retirement post the 2016 Copa final. He had been the player of the tournament in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the team’s failure to produce in the final against Germany was unfairly pinned on Messi’s shoulders. Maradona himself was unkind to his footballing successor, suggesting that Messi had undeservedly been given the Golden Ball (best player) for marketing purposes. While Messi did have his chances against Germany to engrave Argentina’s name on the coveted trophy – as did teammate Gonzalo Higuain – the fact is that Argentina would have booked their tickets home long before the final without Messi’s towering contributions.
With Argentina then losing to Chile on penalties in the 2015 Copa final, Messi perhaps sensed that a rematch in the same tournament a year later was his final chance for an international trophy. It wasn’t to be as the match ended in another penalty shootout win for Chile, and Messi’s miss in the tiebreak seemed to extract a lot out of him emotionally. He was still only 29 but chose to announce his international retirement in the immediate aftermath of a painstaking defeat.
It was clearly a knee-jerk reaction and better sense prevailed as Messi eventually overturned his decision much to the relief of his fans. Even then, though, international success wasn’t forthcoming. By the time the 2018 World Cup came around, Argentina’s round-of-16 exit seemed just par for the course as they had underwhelmed right through the qualification campaign too.
Perhaps, Messi may have felt at that point that there was little sense in carrying on. He was 31 and part of an Argentina squad that seemed to have too many frailties to mount a title challenge in the near future. He was also approaching a downturn in fortunes with Barcelona after a decade of enormous highs, but Messi’s perseverance has paid off.
He may no longer be hunting down every ball and pressing his opponents with the vigour that he once did, but the fundamental ability to create chances and score goals remain intact – as his four goals and five assists in this tournament illustrate. His hunger for success hasn’t diminished either. There was a telling moment during Argentina’s penalty shootout win against Colombia when Messi taunted his ex-Barca teammate Yerry Mina with the words ‘Baila ahora (dance now)’ following the latter’s penalty miss (Mina had danced in celebration following his penalty conversion in Colombia’s previous game against Uruguay).
It was quite uncharacteristic of Messi and hinted at the desperation he had to end his trophy drought. Quickly after the final, though, his empathy came to the fore. Even in his moment of glory, Messi made sure that he consoled a sobbing Neymar. Messi, after all, knows exactly how the Brazilian star must be feeling currently. Having missed the 2019 edition of the Copa America – which Brazil won – due to injury, Neymar too hasn’t tasted high-profile success with Brazil yet. As Messi knows now, all Neymar needs to do is hang in there!