Lionel Messi and Argentina looked poised to finally seal their first major tournament win in 23 years, particularly when goalkeeper Sergio Romero stopped Arturo Vidal’s first spot kick for Chile in the shootout. Messi walked up with a chance to quiet the critics and finally match his stellar club career by sealing a major victory for Argentina. Instead he missed terribly and, when Chile’s Bravo stopped Biglia’s kick in the fifth frame, it was all but over for Argentina, confirmed moments later.
This was the second year in a row that Chile has beaten Argentina in the Copa America final, after again going the full 120 minutes without either team breaking through. It was also the third major final for Argentina in which they could not find the back of the net in 120 minutes of action. Two of those ended in penalty kick heartbreak, with Germany’s Gotze breaking their heart with a late goal in the third. The game tonight was a cagey affair, with two questionable sending offs in the first half and plenty of chances for both sides in the second. As has been the case in three finals before, Higuain had a chance in the first half to crack the game open one-on-one with Bravo, but for the fourth time in total, he failed to deliver. The same happened against Germany in the last World Cup in Brazil and he failed to capitalize on an opportunity late in the last Copa final. Aguero finally came on in the closing minutes of regulation, but he too was denied by an excellent save from Bravo. Messi had some nice runs and half chances, but Chile played him effectively by pushing four, five and even six men at him whenever he closed on the 18-yard-box. His frustration began to show and his passing and dribbling became increasingly erratic as time wore on, though he almost set up the winner on two occasions in extra time.
The question must now emerge again of whether a player can be the “greatest ever” if he cannot replicate his club form for his country, particularly when that country is replete with talent that rarely coalesce on a national side in any given era. Messi has failed to score in his last 360 minutes of Finals action and tonight missed his first penalty shootout in his entire career.
It is not that Messi does not score for his national side – he broke the record for most goals ever by an Argentine in the semifinal cruise over the U.S. a few nights before He scored regularly in the group stage of the last World Cup and in this year’s tournament leading up to the final. Why he can’t seem to reach that level in Finals is certainly something to consider and something that might mar his legacy if he doesn’t end that drought in the next World Cup (2018) or Copa America (2019).
Messi has incredible talent and scores goals in bunches that have never been seen before, clearly a better all-around player than his contemporary Ronaldo; also arguably an underperformer for his team in big tournaments. But the slight diminishing of luster in the past two seasons and the reality that he is surrounded by among the best talent in all the world with Barcelona does then pose a question about whether he still sits behind Pele and Maradona. To me, Maradona is the greatest player of all time until Messi wins that major title for his nation. And one must admit other names sneak into the conversation if we include the dual criteria.
I was rooting for Argentina tonight, and for Messi to get off the snide and solidify his place at the top of the pantheon, but that outrageous penalty kick makes it hard to believe that this is the best player the world has ever seen. Sure it was one moment in a record-smashing career, but we can add the other two finals to that list and a growing sense that his magical moments seem to come less often for country than club.