Lionel Messi is, much to the relief of him and his fans around the world, a Copa America winner with Argentina at long last.
Throughout his career, there’s been a small portion of Argentina fans – a small but vocal portion, it is worth noting – who believed that Lionel Messi cared more about Barcelona than his country. That he was more Catalan than Argentine. Or that he was not vocal enough and not enough of a leader with the national team – a myth famously propogated by the man Messi is most compared to, Diego Maradona. Of course, a plain look at the facts at hand makes most of these criticisms seem surface level at best and ludicrous at worst. But in the world of social media and hot takes, these are ideas that caught fire among a good section of the global football fanbase.
That none of this is even remotely true can be seen by Messi’s reaction to Argentina winning the Copa America 2021. When the final whistle blew, he broke into tears and sunk to the floor. Then his teammates rushed to him and picked him up.
To further drive home how much Messi means to his teammates, they formed a huddle and threw him up in the air. That kind of gesture is reserved mostly for managers or retiring legends. Messi, it’s worth noting, is neither of these.
Messi fits into a category of his own – he’s a living legend, still taking the world of football by storm. He is, incredibly, without a club as we speak.
And he is, much to the relief of him and his fans around the world, a championship winner with Argentina.
It would be fair to say that Argentina were heavily reliant on Lionel Messi coming into the tournament. It’s just the way it has been for years now. However, Messi came into this tournament with a different mindset.
He was determined to grab the stage by the scruff of it’s neck and make everyone and everything dance to his tune. And while that is always how Messi plays, this time it was reflected clearly in the stats.
Messi ends the Copa America as joint top goalscorer as well as having taken the most number of shots. He created the most chances and notched up the most assists. He racked up the most passes made in the final third. And he also played in the most through balls in the tournament.
Whether it was scoring free-kicks or penalties, from inside the box or outside, creating chances or aiding in the buildup – Messi was there.
Of course, none of this is new to anyone who’s followed Messi’s career. The key difference this time was that his contributions didn’t go in vain for La Albiceleste.
His 4 goals and 5 assists were enough to see him named Player of the Tournament. Of course, it is worth remembering that he won the Golden Ball in the 2014 World Cup too – another tournament that Messi almost singlegandedly won.
Back then, many felt that Messi and Argentina would have won the final if the team banded together rather than relying on Messi for an individual moment of brilliance.
How fitting then, that their triumph in the final came about from a goal that was neither scored nor assisted by Messi.
This drove home the fact that Argentina are no longer solely dependant on Lionel Messi. Yes, having a player of his calibre means he will always be central to their success. But others chipped in when needed – and not just in the final.
Argentina started the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Chile, in which their sole goal was scored by Messi. They followed this with two 1-0 wins, with Messi not getting on the scoresheet in either of these games.
Goalscoring duties instead fell to Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez and and Guido Rodriguez. Messi did steal the show against Bolivia and Ecuador, but even then the other players were in full flow.
Lautaro Martinez, fresh from winning a Serie A with Inter Milan, continued his sublime form. He scored thrice, with two of those goals coming in the knockout stages.
Gomez was in fine knick, as was Rodrigo de Paul. In fact, it was the Udinese midfielder who created the goal in the final against Brazil. His superb pass found Angel di Maria, whose sublime chipped effort was enough on the day.
Messi did get a chance to make an imprint on the final, but failed to round Ederson in the Brazil goal. Not that it mattered in the end, because Argentina defended with their lives.
It is perhaps the biggest irony of Messi’s career. His trophy-laden spell at Barcelona came down to dominating the ball, the opposition and the scoresheet. But here at the Maracana, he and the others sat deep and played down the minutes.
In short, to win a team trophy, they played like a team. And at long last, Messi is a champion in national colours.
Whether he can lift the World Cup in 2022 remains to be seen. But winning the Copa America fills arguably the biggest void in Messi’s career – and only solidifies the idea that he’s the Greatest of All Time.