For the better part of a decade, Lionel Messi’s supposed failures at major international tournaments were the one thing, the only thing, separating him from undisputed GOAT status.
He is the most talented soccer player ever, and for half his life, he’s proven as much at Barcelona. He’s dazzled for his native Argentina as well. But on big stages, at World Cups and Copa Americas, he dimmed as spotlights brightened. Argentina fell short in back-to-back-to-back major finals. And narratives developed. That Messi couldn’t win the big one. That Messi this, and Messi that.
And the problem with all of them was quite simple: Soccer, perhaps more than any other sport, cannot be conquered by an individual.
Saturday night’s Copa America final, which Argentina entered as +300 underdogs with BetMGM, proved them all wrong. But not because Messi was brilliant. Rather, because he wasn’t. But this time, at the 10th attempt, his supporting cast — the one that had so often failed him — delivered.
Argentina toppled Brazil, mighty Brazil, 1-0 in Rio de Janeiro. Rodrigo De Paul bossed a fiery midfield battle. Defenders threw limbs at Neymar and held firm. Angel Di Maria, foiled by injury in previous finals, scored the game’s only goal in the first half with a delightful lob.
And Argentina, at long last, ended a 28-year major tournament drought.
Messi was, by his untouchable standards, pedestrian. The game was, like previous Argentina finals, frantic and fierce and ugly. At one point in the first half, both Messi and Neymar lay prone on the Maracana Stadium grass. Yellow cards flashed early and often. Shorts and socks ripped. Blood was drawn.
In 2014, 2015 and 2016, Argentineans had folded under similar, unfathomable pressure. The ghosts of Gonzalo Higuain misses haunted the Albiceleste and millions of starving supporters for years to come. At the World Cup, Germany and Mario Gotze made them pay. At Copa Americas, Chile twice sent them into distress after penalty shootouts. Messi briefly retired after the second one.
But he returned, and his brilliance never dissipated. He turned 34 during this tournament. He still sparked Argentina to the final with four goals and five assists.
And after 95 grueling minutes, at the sound of a referee’s whistle, he sunk to his knees. His face broke into joyous tears. His teammates swarmed to him.
They hugged him tight. They hoisted him up and threw him into the air.
Lionel Messi, the greatest ever, finally had an international trophy as evidence. He lifted it, and his face no longer wore the crushing weight of his nation. He smiled.
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