UPDATE [1:30 a.m. ET]: Lionel Messi announces international retirement following Argentina’s Copa America loss to Chile.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Moments after Chile secured its defense of the Copa America title in a pressure-filled penalty shootout, Argentina’s star players including world-beater Lionel Messi stood in the middle of the field trying to come to terms with a third consecutive final defeat.
It didn’t matter that Copa America organizers were creating a concert just a few feet away. The players laid on the pitch, trying to move past letting yet another opportunity to end the country’s now 23-year wait for a major trophy slip out of their grasp. Considering how La Albiceleste had played throughout the tournament, it almost appeared as if it was destiny that they would win. That Messi would finally live up to his legacy as Diego Maradona’s successor and come home as a champion. Instead, the wait continues and the 29-year-old will have to face even more criticism.
After Arturo Vidal saw the opening penalty saved by Argentina’s Sergio Romero, Messi had a chance to give his side an early advantage but he messed up on his run up to the spot and sent his shot wide left. The miss was so heartbreaking that he couldn’t stand next to his teammates on shooting line and laid motionless next to them before being pulled up. But this loss, like the previous final losses in both last year’s Copa America and the 2014 World Cup again doesn’t fall on his shoulders.
Gonzalo Higuain appeared to receive a gift from the football gods when Gary Medel missed a backpass and the striker was left alone with a golden chance against Chile’s Claudio Bravo. Yet his shot went left just past the post instead of behind goal. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
Against Germany in 2014, Higuain had a very similar chance against Manuel Neuer and also missed. Then he followed suit in Copa America 2015 in both open play and penalties, where he completely missed target, skying above goal. It is questionable whether or not the Napoli striker should have started, considering his track record, with Sergio Aguero sitting on the bench.It’s the type of decision that has left managers like Tata Martino and his predecessor Alejandro Sabella having many sleepless nights. But Higuain wasn’t alone in missing chances.
Aguero and Angel Di Maria had their chances through the match but couldn’t find precision against a gutsy Chilean side that appears determined to prove that its success in 2015 wasn’t an aberration. La Roja now has two international titles in two years and one has to believe that bigger successes could be on the horizon. There’s the Confederations Cup next year and likely the the ambition to prove its quality in Russia in 2018. Considering that Vidal and fellow star Alexis Sanchez will still be in their primes, it isn’t a far-fetched expectation.
While Jorge Sampaoli, the manager who led Chile to its first-ever tournament win, is longer around, his successor Juan Antonio Pizzi continues Chile’s disruptive style of play that makes its competitors uncomfortable and at times even agitated. On paper, Argentina appeared to have a stronger squad but its frustration was evident, with several cards handed out to both teams throughout the match. Once La Roja gained a bit of control, it seemed as if they gained the psychological edge on their competitors and that’s ultimately what sealed them the title.
It is a shame to the winners that the focus will fall back on Messi, but that’s what happens when you have a five-time Ballon D’Or winner participating in a tournament. And there were definitely times where he showed that he was finally clicking with an Argentina side where he usually struggles to replicate his outer-worldly Barcelona form. Given a free role, the freedom enabled him to crush most sides in this tournament, even with limited minutes early on. But in the final, Chile managed to contain that threat.
Yet, there was one moment that in the final that struck as symbolic of Messi’s time with Argentina. Late on in the game, Messi dribbled from the halfway mark, trying to find a teammate to pass to. Seeing an opening he continued to drive ahead, cutting past four defenders to finally take a shot that skied above a goal. It was a moment that was brilliant and reminded you of Messi’s magic. But it almost seems like he’ll have to even better than his best just to finally get Argentina its long coveted trophy. At least until his teammates finally decide to lessen the burden.