Lionel Messi won his first senior trophy with the national team as Angel Di Maria’s goal gave Argentina a 1-0 win over hosts Brazil in the Copa America final on Saturday.
The victory at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium ended Argentina’s 28-year wait for a major trophy, and also ended Brazil’s undefeated record at home, that stretched back more than 2 500 days to be precise.
The last time Argentina had tasted victory at a major tournament was in 1993 when the great, Gabriel Batistuta’s brace, gave them a 2-1 win over Mexico in the Copa final in Ecuador.
“It’s a great title, especially for our people. The fans support the team unconditionally. I think they can identify with this team that never gives in,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni.
It was the first time in six times playing at home that Brazil had failed to lift the trophy. While 34-year-old Messi’s wait has come to an end, Brazil’s Neymar, five years his junior, is still without a major title at international level having missed the Selecao’s win on home soil two years ago through injury.
Neymar found Lionel Messi moments after the defeat and gave the Argentina forward a congratulatory hug.
The former Barcelona team-mates remain the best of friends off the pitch, so Neymar wanted to congratulate his tournament rival even as he still had tears in his eyes from the loss. Later, the duo sat next to one another on the field to talk and embrace each other.
Neymar had struggled with the physicality from defenders during the match. Argentina edged a brutal and fractious affair thanks to Di Maria’s goal on 22 minutes. He ran onto the end of Rodrigo De Paul’s sumptuous through ball to chip Brazil goalkeeper Ederson with a first time finessed finish.
“We fell short so many times, we dreamt so much about this, fought so hard,” said Di Maria, who was given man of the match award.
“Many people said we wouldn’t manage it, we were criticised a lot. But we kept knocking at the door and kept going until today we knocked it down and entered.”
Messi could have secured the win with two minutes remaining, however he was unlucky to have slipped when one on one with only Ederson to beat.
“We have to be big enough to recognise [the defeat] regardless of how painful and difficult it is,” said Brazil coach Tite.
In a panicky start, Nicolas Otamendi was quickly in the action with his first foul while Brazilian midfielder Fred also picked up the first booking after just three minutes for a studs up challenge at Gonzalo Montiel.
Brazil remained unchanged from their win over Peru in the semis, while Scaloni made five alterations, notably bringing in Di Maria – who started with real verve and energy, and the change proved decisive as it did against Colombia last time out.
The final was the first match of the tournament, which was originally due to take place last year, to allow in fans as 7 800 – a tenth of the Maracana capacity – took their seats after authorities partially lifted pandemic restrictions.
The first clear chance came on 13 minutes as Richarlison headed down Marquinhos’s long ball into the path of Neymar but the Brazilian star was crowded out by a pair of defenders.
The brutality of the early challenges could be seen on the players’ kits even, with Neymar having to play with torn shorts and Lucas Paqueta being left with a hole in his sock following a challenge by Otamendi.
Argentina played with aggression and drsire, but no lack of quality at all, with Di Maria beating Brazil’s left back Renan Lodi on consecutive occasions, who probably should have intercepted De Paul’s ball for the goal.
Di Maria also had a shot from just outside the box blocked, while Messi struck just wide following a mazy 40 yard run.
Brazil lacked creativity. Even when they had a free-kick from shooting range, Neymar wasn’t able to get it passed the wall.
The hosts did finally maintain some sustained pressure and produced a good spell late in the first half, Everton’s deflected strike harmlessly wobbled though to goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez though.
Roberto Firmino was then brought on by Tite for defensive midfielder Fred at half-time signaling their intenr. Richarlison had the ball in the net soon after but it was ruled out for offside.
A few plays later, Neymar laid it off to Richarlison but Martinez parried his near post shot wide. Increasingly it descended into a tension filled, anxious affair with little fluency of play between constant free kicks and fouls and a barrage of antics and arguments.
Argentina’s took advantage of this, as they looked to run down the clock and hold onto their slim lead.
“Only one team wanted to play. It’s a trap we knew about. That’s not an excuse,” complained Brazil captain Thiago Silva.
“It’s difficult to play such a stop-start match.”
Brazil managed to up the pressure again at the end of the half but they lacked a killer instinct or the final decisive touch, against some full-blooded defending – Montiel even finished the game with his sock covered and soaked in blood. Martinez was equal to most of Brazil’s efforts and even late on thwarted a volley by substitute, Gabriel Barbosa.
Sadly for Brazil they were without Gabriel Jesus who got sent off in their quarter final encounter and was subsequently banned for two games, which understandably frustrated Neymar and Brazilians alike.
Messi: The undisputed GOAT?
Lionel Messi is finally a winner at international level after being on the losing side in four previous finals – three times in the Copa America and once in the 2014 World Cup. The tears were there for everyone to see, this time however, it was tears of joy.
Messi led Argentina to its first Copa America title in 28 years. The frantic final led him to his first-ever title in a blue-and-white shirt after more than a decade of the club and individual honours.
Messi’s inability to win an international title with Argentina always left an asterisk beside his name on the all-time greats list. But that is now gone after an emotional final.
After breaking his international duck, it will be interesting to see what people bring to the long famed debate of who is the greatest player of all time with him even winning the player of the tournament, and the golden boot as well. Will he go on to win a record breaking seventh Ballon dor?
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Main image credits: Embed from Getty Images