Andrew Downie | Messi’s triumphLRB July 20, 2021


The moment Lionel Messi lifted the trophy after Argentina beat Brazil in the Copa América final on July 10 marked a turning point in football history, almost as important as that of Pelé who beat all the records to win his third World Cup with Brazil in 1970.

Messi had won all the honors available at individual and club level, but had never won a trophy with Argentina, whose last big success was at the Copa America in 1993. The drought was painful for Argentina but worse for Messi. His rivals for the impossible to win but coveted title of “greatest player of all time” have all inspired their national teams to new heights. Messi, a giant in Barcelona blaugrana, often seemed to shrink when wearing Argentina’s blue and white jersey. In four World Cups he reached the final once, in 2014, losing 1-0 to Germany. Prior to this year, he had made three Copa América finals and lost all three. It may say more about his team-mates’ shortcomings than his own, but alongside Pelé or Diego Maradona – the two men long considered the greatest – Messi’s international column was empty.

Football is a team game and the best players have to do more than seize the opportunity themselves. If they can’t bring up their teammates either, they can’t be considered really great. Pelé and Maradona inspired those around them; Cristiano Ronaldo, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane too. This has long been a problem for Messi, who is too modest to berate, cajole and curse the men around him to uplift their game. Instead, they sometimes look in awe of being on the same. ground than him.

Messi is getting around that by taking on more responsibility. If he can’t inspire the rest of the squad, he himself takes over, works harder, scores more goals, assists for others. The matches that he wins almost on his own, in club and in selection, are not uncommon. It doesn’t always work – a man can’t do everything – and Messi was quieter than usual in a final decided by a goal from Ángel Di María. But his teammates know their place; as Messi fell to his knees at the final whistle, they all ran towards him. The message, repeated throughout the weekend on Argentine television, was clear: the title was for a deserving nation, but above all it was for a deserving Messi.

How Argentines feel for Messi is different from the unconditional love they had for Maradona, the wayward genius who died last year. Especially compared to Maradona, Messi has long been seen as bloodless and cool. He has changed in recent years, tried to show more passion, and his compatriots warmed up to him. Yet he remains introverted, calm, unmoved. The first thing he did after winning the Copa América was call his family. Standing on the grass in Rio de Janeiro, holding his medal, he made a video call to his wife. ‘Where are you?’ he asked him.

Messi, who turned 34 last month, is still expected to be the first name for Argentina’s squad at next year’s World Cup in Qatar. But the World Cup is much more difficult to win than the Copa América. South American teams have won nine of the first seventeen World Cups, but none of the last four. Football’s power struggle, once so finely balanced between Europe and South America, has shifted decisively to the old world and no one is betting Argentina will add a third star to their badge. But after sixteen years, Messi won a major trophy with the national team, placing considerable weight on his claim to be the greatest of all time.

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