Although he’s the most decorated modern player in club football terms, Lionel Messi remains a nearly-man at international level following Argentina’s loss to Chile on penalties in the Copa America final. As the tournament concludes with Chile being crowned deserving winners, there’s a pervading sense of déjà vu from last summer’s World Cup hanging around both Messi and Argentina.
Once again, the Albiceleste entered the tournament with a star-studded squad built around the recently restored “Best Player in the World”; Once again, they reached the final through a series of mostly middling performances; And once again, they fell to a team that was the best in the competition. Like Germany last summer, Chile are deserving winners, having played the best and most consistent football throughout the nearly month-long tournament.
But unlike last year, which Messi admitted was one to forget, in 2015 he’d been in just about the best form of his career, inspiring many to ask, what if he’d been in this form leading up to the World Cup? But while there were a few moments of magic in the group stage and a command performance during the 6-1 rout of Paraguay, Messi wasn’t really much better in Chile then he’d been in Brazil. There was no Maradonaesque moment that could define his legacy for Argentina.
While those who watch Barcelona regularly will have no doubt as to Messi’s standing as a player, the question remains as to why he’s never been able to consistently replicate his dominance at club level with Argentina. When Messi dons the blue and white jersey we see a very good player with moments of greatness. Rather than the utterly indomitable one who toppled Jerome Boateng in the Champions League and dribbled his way past five Sevilla defenders a few days later.
Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo at Portugal, Messi’s supporting cast at international is arguably every bit as talented as his club side. A team featuring the likes of Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Pablo Zabaleta, would be a match for any in the world. And to its credit, Argentina has reached two major finals in a row.
But just like last summer, Argentina missed clear-cut chances to put away the winner, most notably Higuain failing to get on the end of Lavezzi’s 92nd minute cross at the end of regulation time. And despite registering 18 shots and four on target to Chile’s eight shots and two on target, Argentina was again edged by a superior team.
Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final aside, games of this magnitude are typically won by the narrowest of margins. If Higuain had converted his chances, against Brazil last summer, and Chile on Saturday we’d be talking about the Golden Generation of Argentine football right now. Instead we’re talking about a group of players and an individual talent, that despite all its brilliance have again fallen short at the final hurdle.
There are parallels to be drawn between this current generation of Argentinian players and the great Netherlands team of the 1970s that reached consecutive World Cup finals and lost them both. The second of those losses was to Argentina, a team that unlike the Dutch has a couple of World Cups to its name. The question is, will Messi lead them to a third, or will he remain like the star of that Dutch team, Johan Cruyff; a serial winner at club level who never achieved what he could have internationally?
At the age of 28, Messi at least has a couple more chances.