Argentina are into a semi-final with Colombia in the early hours of Wednesday morning in the Copa America in Brazil but it is the final in the Maracana Stadium that separates Lionel Messi from international glory. Is this finally his moment to win some silverware with the senior side?
That evening in the Estadio do Maracana will always be part of the Lionel Messi story. He could never hope to eclipse what Diego Maradona had done in Mexico in 1986 but this was his opportunity to hold a mirror up to it by bringing the World Cup back from Brazil. His big chance came at the start of the second half. Manuel Neuer was well beaten but the ball drifted past the far post. Nobody had as many shots in that final, nobody created more chances and nobody completed even half as many dribbles. Nobody cared. It felt like failure. Accepting the World Cup’s Golden Ball, a perverse joke. Twice, Messi has reached the final of the Copa America since then. Twice, Argentina have been beaten on penalties. Twice, Messi has been close to retiring, bereft, seemingly accepting of his fate.
On Saturday evening, three nights short of seven years since Messi’s date with destiny in the Maracana, he is set to return. A fourth Copa America final looms. Another shot at glory and redemption for the game’s most celebrated player, now 34 years young.Sponsored Links.
The Maracana will look and feel different. This Copa – moved to Brazil just weeks before it began – has been played out without crowds. It has taken some Messi magic to ignite it and there has been plenty of that on show. He has been the player of the tournament. Ahead of Argentina’s semi-final against Colombia in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Messi already has four goals and four assists – topping both charts. In the quarter-final against Ecuador, he was decisive, cleverly setting up the first two goals before scoring the third in stoppage time.
That strike – “a work of art dressed as a goal,” wrote Maximiliano Uria in Clarin – was his second free-kick goal of the tournament, two more than have been scored in total at Euro 2020. Messi continues to amaze. He has been directly involved in eight of Argentina’s 10 goals in Brazil and played his part in the build-up to the other two.
Officially, he has been named man of the match in four of Argentina’s five matches. Unofficially, such things matter less than they ever have – to him and to his legacy. “The individual awards are secondary,” says Messi. “We are here for something else.”
That specific comment came in response to the reminder that Messi is one goal away from Pele’s record of 77 international goals by a South American player. That record will tumble soon, just as another did against Bolivia as Messi became Argentina’s most capped player. The doubts about his commitment to his country are long gone. He sat out Barcelona’s last game of the season, an indication of his priorities. Technically, he is now a free agent, without a club at all.