Is Lionel Messi's Copa America triumph too little too late?
Background image: Trey Ratcliffe, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
While England remained optimistic about ending their 55-year major trophy drought at Wembley Stadium against Italy prior to Sunday evening, Lionel Messi was watching teammates exorcise his international demons in another fabled ground, half a world away. Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 in Saturday’s Copa America Final at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately for the Barcelona living legend, he was more involved in the celebration than achieving the victory. But what was there not to celebrate? The primary argument against his greatness, that he had never won a continental championship or World Cup as his three main rivals in the debate over the greatest of all time, Pele, Maradona and Cristiano Ronaldo all had, was finally erased. As an added bonus, La Albiceleste's triumph kept Messi's former Barca teammate and one-time heir apparent, Neymar, in his shadow. Somehow lost among those heady storylines was Brazil and Everton star Richarlison’s poignant tribute to England great Paul Gascoigne but that’s another tale entirely. The question here is whether this was as much Messi's win as Argentina's and, therefore, sufficient to quiet his doubters. I can only speak for myself but the answer is no.
Messi’s Copa unfolded like every other major tournament in which he’s participated. Three of his four goals came in the five-game group stage. His only meaningful tally in the competition occurred in the opener versus Chile, his side's lone marker in a one-goal draw against a nation the Argentines can never seem to put down. Leo scored a brace against Bolivia but who hasn’t? His sole strike in the later rounds was an injury-time free kick from the edge of the 18 against Ecuador with the Albiceleste already up 2-0. It was up to others in the squad to do the heavy lifting in the crucial moments. Yes, yes, he won the Golden Boot with those four goals but timing is everything. Typically, he put in his shift early, clocked out and let others handle the furious end-of-tournament rush.
Earlier in the knockout rounds, the likes of Lautaro Martinez and Papu Gomez shouldered the burden. In the final against Brazil, it was Angel di Maria. The Paris Saint-Germain star beat Brazil’s high line in the 23rd minute to body down a long ball over the top from newly inked Atletico Madrid midfielder Rodrigo de Paul which he then calmly chipped over the onrushing Ederson Moraes. Those who recall Di Maria’s wonder strike against France during the 2018 World Cup in Russia or his many others during a stellar career for PSG and Real Madrid know that the long-faced, lanky winger looks and acts more like a goat in big moments than his national captain. In fact, he nearly put another past Ederson a mere six minutes later.
With 67 minutes to respond, Neymar and Brazil did not surrender meekly. That other PSG star and teammate Richarlison forced a handful of important saves from Albiceleste and Aston Villa shot stopper Emi Martinez. Denied repeatedly, Neymar also absorbed a full-on body check from Nicholas Otamendi that somehow was not deemed a red card offense even though its violent nature was so laden with intent to injure that scouts for various National Hockey League clubs dropped what they were doing and booked tickets to Buenos Aires to sign the former Manchester City defender, to a man shrugging off Otamendi's utter unfamiliarity with ice skates as a minor, correctable detail.
In the end or near enough--on 87 minutes if we’re being pedantic--his majesty Lionel Messi was presented with the opportunity to contribute directly to Argentina’s triumph. Behind the Selecao defence and isolated 1v1 with Ederson, he could have put the match to bed. Instead, the so-called goat stumbled forward and all but handed the ball on a silver platter to the tattooed keeper. Think of the many Youtube clips of toddlers playing on pitches after matches and, cheered on by the crowd, slowly, tortuously nudging the ball toward an empty goal while barely staying on their feet. Now consider that they displayed better form than Argentina's number ten. [5:20]
To put it simply, goat is an apropos term for football's foremost player, whoever that might be, because, when the animal itself is challenged, it responds by lowering its head and getting in. Pele did it, although he was more like a bull. Maradona never waited for anyone else to step up. Neither has Ronaldo although he was ably assisted at Real Madrid by Gareth Bale who, like Di Maria, not only acts like a goat in finals but could pass for one on the street as well.
Oh, there was that hat trick for Leo in Quito that rescued Argentina’s World Cup qualification at the death in 2017 but on the whole, Lionel Messi is not the consistent mover of Heaven and Earth for Argentina that Maradona was, that Pele used to be for Brazil or Ronaldo remains for Portugal. He is not the goat. Pick any of the other three. At best, he is a sleeping dog whom opponents have learned to let lie.