Lionel Messi's long wait for an international trophy is finally over. After losing three finals in three years between 2014 and 2016, Messi and Argentina finally managed to get through the Copa America final unscathed. When referee Esteban Ostojich blew the final whistle, the ecstatic Argentine players ran to Messi, embracing and rejoicing the sweet taste of victory. Despite having the indomitable Messi on the pitch, Argentina were underdogs. Brazil were favourites to win on home soil again, but Argentina rained on that parade.
The curtains were drawn on a Copa America campaign that was fraught with hurdles and controversy. The tournament was originally scheduled to be held in 2020. The pandemic enforced a postponement, but unlike Euro 2020, it was called Copa America 2021. Argentina and Colombia were supposed to be the hosts. The dire Covid situation in those countries meant the competition was moved to Brazil. While Euro 2020 was played in front of tens of thousands of fans - sometimes, as in Budapest, in front of a packed 60,000 strong stadium - there were no crowds in Copa. Brazil, too, have been hit hard with Covid, with over 500,000 deaths.
Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã Stadium allowed a 10% capacity crowd. It has seen some controversy too. CONMEBOL said in a statement that a considerable number of fraudulent PCR tests from invited guests were found. In the end, it was a 7,800 capacity crowd, but in the game, it felt like much more. It pales in comparison to the 69,968 who attended the 2019 final. Those in the stadium did make their presence felt. The Brazil-heavy crowd booed Argentina's touches, and cheered Neymar's slick footwork.
Argentina's Copa, Brazil's heartbreak
Two years ago, Brazil won the Copa America on home soil. Neymar did not play that tournament. He pulled out before the start and was replaced by Willian. Yet, Brazil went on to win the trophy. This time around, Neymar has been a huge part of Brazil's attacking play. In the final, however, he fell short.
Brazil's influential number ten was a nuisance to Argentina all through the game. He induced fouls all over the attacking third, and created a number of opportunities. They could not take their chances, however. Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta both missed chances, and Everton was quiet. The first 20 minutes of the final were full of niggling fouls and a continuous turnover of possession. The procession of fouls would continue deep into injury time at the end of the game, but both sides seemed to calm down approaching the 20th minute. Then, disaster struck fro Brazil.
Rodrigo de Paul spotted Di Maria and executed a fantastic long ball towards the Paris Saint-Germain forward. Left-back Renan Lodi should have cleared it. Instead, his wild swipe at the ball failed to generate any meaningful connection. The ball fell to Di Maria, who produced an impeccable finish to put his side ahead. Argentina's number 11 had last scored for his country in their 2018 World Cup quarter-final, when he equalised against France. What a time it was for a return to the scoring ways! Di Maria was cool throughout as he calmly dinked the ball over Ederson, and into the back of the net. Replays showed he timed his run to perfection.
The goal calmed Argentina down. They retained possession better, and created a few chances. For the most part, though, their tendency to sit back after taking the lead was what came to the fore.
Top performances from Argentines
Cristian Romero was back in the starting lineup after missing out in previous games due to a knee injury. Since the group stage win over Paraguay, Romero missed three games, throwing doubts over his participation in the final. He made it, though, and what a performance it was! He showed no signs of injury or rustiness and he showed his defensive capabilities. His recovery pace came in handly multiple times, getting to the ball ahead of Neymar and Richarlison. He was a rock at the back. He made just one mistake, botching a clearance straight to Richarlison who put the ball in the back of the net. It was chalked out for offside, however, and Romero can look back on a memorable performance.
Brazil began with two holding midfielders with Fred and Casemiro, while Argentina left theirs on the bench. Scaloni opted to keep Guido Rodriguez on the bench, starting a midfield three of Leandro Paredes, Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo de Paul. It worked well for Argentina. The trio won the midfield battle. They controlled possession, were strong in winning the ball off Brazil's attacking players, and played forward passes as well. De Paul, in particular, was excellent throughout. All three midfielders ended up booked in a physical game where players flew into tackles.
Lautaro Martinez and Lionel Messi had relatively quiet afternoons. Messi had a few electrifying runs, but they all came to nought. He had the opportunity to finish off the game late in the second half, but could not get his shot off. Rodrigo de Paul was involved again, setting up his captain. Messi only had to beat the keeper, but he went too close to Ederson and couldn't get the ball away from Manchester City's number one. It would have been a fairy tale moment.
Brazil's lack of cutting edge and Argetina's defensive shape led Tite to roll the dice at half-time. He took off one of his holding midfielders, Fred, to bring on Roberto Firmino.
The move helped, as the Liverpool forward added some verve to the Brazilian attack. Once again, though, it was just a barrage of shots that led to nothing. Vinicius Jr. was the next to arrive, replacing Everton, one of the stars of the 2019 Copa America win.
The Real Madrid winger did precious little in his cameo, his only highlight a foul won off Argentina right-back Gonzalo Montiel.
It was the introduction of Gabriel Barbosa and Emerson that really injected life into Braizil's attack. With Argentina sitting deep, Emerson had space to run into. The Barcelona full-back replaced Renan Lodi, who had as dismal night. He was at fault for the opener, and saw a yellow card for a foul on Messi. Neither manager wanted to see their side go down to ten men in the closing stages. It was a feature of the game, taking off players on yellow cards. Emerson was a breath of fresh air, beating defenders, going on strong runs and setting up his teammates. Gabriel, meanwhile, making his presence felt. He had a penalty shout turned down by the referee, and induced a fine save off Emi Martinez.
Brazil kept on attacking all through the game, but Martinez only made two big saves. The first one was from a close range Richarlison strike, and the second was the aforementioned stop from Gabriel's hit. The Aston Villa keeper has had an excellent tournament, with his three penalty saves against Colombia in the semi-final being the highlight. He was mostly comfortable, and commanded his area. There were a few awkward deflections, but he dealt well enough.
Victory in the Copa America, at long last!
The last time Argentina won a final was in 1993. Those were the days with Diego Simeone in midfield and Gabriel Batistuta in attack. Batistuta scored twice to help beat Mexico for their 14th title. They lost the finals of the 2004, 2007, 2015 and 2016 editions of the Copa America, the 2014 World Cup final, and the Confederations Cup finals in 1995 and 2005. After seven unsuccessful attempts, they've finally got one right.
For Messi, this moment means a lot. His penalty miss led to Argentina's loss to Chile in 2016. Having lost three finals in three years, he called it quits at the international stage. Finally, he has what he desired. Ever since Portugal won Euro 2016, people would point out Messi's lack of international silverware in the perennial Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate. No more, then. He has the feather that was missing from his heavily adorned cap. The Copa America ensures he wouldn't end his career without an international title.
Messi has tasted victory now, and who knows, he might yet add a World Cup to his considerably heavy trophy cabinet. Qatar 2022, here he comes. Make way for the King.