Messi Wins First Title With Argentina, Against Brazil in Copa América
Lionel Messi finally ticked the last empty box of his brilliant footballing career on Saturday night, leading Argentina to host Brazil 1-0 in the Copa América final in Rio de Janeiro.
The trophy was Messi’s first with Argentina after a series of painful, agonizing and infuriating failures, including perhaps the most demoralizing loss of his career – to Germany in the World Cup final – in the same stadium, the gigantic Maracanã de Rio, in 2014.
When the whistle sounded to end the final, Messi – his palpable relief – fell to his knees and was immediately surrounded by his teammates. Moments later, they lifted him over their shoulders and tossed him into the air.
“I had to remove the thorn to be able to achieve something with the national team,” Messi said after the dressing room celebrations, according to the Associated Press. “I had been close for other years and knew it was going to happen. I thank God for giving me this moment, against Brazil and Brazil. I kept this moment to myself.
In more than a decade at the peak of his sport, Messi, 34, had won almost every football honor imaginable with his Spanish club team, Barcelona: every award, every honor, every cup, championship and trophy.
And year after year after painful year, he had won nothing with Argentina.
His friend Ángel Di María finally handed the award, giving Argentina the lead in the 22nd minute after coldly recovering a long cross pass to the right wing from deep midfielder Rodrigo De Paul. Controlling the rebounding ball with a simple touch of his left foot after passing Brazilian left-back Renan Lodi, Di María then settled in and – lifting the ball with the same foot on his next rebound – sent a shot at Brazil goalkeeper Ederson, who landed softly in the back of Brazil’s net.
As Messi and the rest of the Argentina squad ran to celebrate with Di María, the Brazilians stood up, stunned. The goal was only the third they had allowed in the tournament.
Messi had worn Argentina last month in Brazil as he chased the kind of trophy he had coveted for so long. He led the Copa América by scoring this summer, with four goals and five assists, but he had done it before and then he did not take the final victory.
The sting of repeated failures – in the World Cup in 2014, and in the Copa América final in 2015 and again in 2016 – had seen Messi withdraw from the national team at least twice. But both times he had given in and returned to chase that first senior title. This month, Argentinian players made it their mission to deliver it.
“Messi is one step ahead of all of us,” De Paul said ahead of the semi-finals. “We are all on the same path. What matters is winning.
“We gave it to Messi,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said, “who most deserved it.”
Saturday’s game was the fiery and fiery affair that everyone expected from South America’s two greatest powers; a six-inch piece of Brazilian star Neymar’s shorts were ripped off in the first half, and Messi dove with a rare scissor tackle at one point.
Continuing the game, Brazil sent a wave of attackers after half-time: Roberto Firmino came on at the break and was followed, later, by Vinicius Júnior and Gabriel Barbosa as Brazil pressed for the equalizing goal.
Richarlison believed he had tied the score in the 52nd minute when he ran on a Lucas Paquetá header and scored a low shot. But reruns showed he had broken a fraction of a second earlier, and the goal was disallowed for offside.
Two minutes later he was inside again, this time around, but his shot was arrested at close range and repelled by Martínez.
Opportunities kept coming, on both sides – even Messi blew a heads-up in the mouth of the goal late in the game – but as the minutes went by, and the tackles became rougher and more emphatic dives and foul calls, the score did not change.
Messi was finally a champion in Argentine blue and white.
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