EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Diego Maradona, of all people, should know how hard it is. He played for Argentina at seven major tournaments and coached in an eighth, advancing to two finals and winning only one. That triumph, at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, is remembered by many as much for Maradona’s sleight of hand as the genius in his feet. When divine intervention is required to survive the quarters and your team blows a two-goal lead in the final, that should help you appreciate the fine margins deciding top international tournaments. It should leave you less inclined to pile additional pressure on countrymen still involved.
It should, but it didn’t. Speaking on Argentine radio this week, Maradona expressed confidence that La Albiceleste would defeat Chile at MetLife Stadium in Sunday’s Copa América Centenario final. He then added, “And if we don’t win, they shouldn’t come back.”
Such is the tension in Argentina, which has gone an unprecedented 23 years without a major senior title. It’s as if the country’s appreciation for this golden generation of players led by Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuaín will be cemented only if they end the drought. And with Messi, the five-time world player of the year, having turned 29 on Friday, there’s an agonizing sense that time is slipping away.
Two years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Argentina fell to Germany, 1–0, in the World Cup final. Higuaín and Messi had open looks before extra time, but each sent his shot wide. Last year, Argentina and Chile met in the Copa América decider in Santiago. Higuaín missed from the doorstep in the 90th minute and the hosts went on to win a penalty kick shootout and their first continental championship in 99 years.
On Sunday, Argentina gets another chance thanks to this special-edition Copa. And once again Chile stands in the way. They have been the two best teams in the tournament and they outscored their four knockout-round foes by a combined 17–1. Argentina (5-0-0) and Chile (4-1-0) met in the opener and La Albiceleste won, 2–1, absent an injured Messi. But Chile hit its stride with a 7–0 quarterfinal demolition of Mexico and now both teams are in championship form.
“We’ve already made a clean break from [the opener],” Chile midfielder Marcelo Díaz said Saturday. “The players are practically the same ones [as 2015]. Our tactics are precisely the same. We just need to keep in mind the fact that yes, we are able to defeat Argentina because we’re a team with a lot of confidence in our abilities.”
After a lengthy wait to win one, Chile must defend its Copa crown just a year later. Meanwhile, Argentina and its brightest star, who’s 0–3 in senior international finals and has only that one hole on his resume, now hope to end their painful drought.
“We arrive in amazing [form],” Messi told reporters on Friday. “On the field, we have to show it against a national team doing very good things. It'll be very difficult, but we are confident.
“I don’t know if it’s the last chance to win a title. But we should take advantage of it,” he added. “I would like to change history and be a champion with the national team. Argentina was a very solid team throughout the tournament. I don’t know if it would be a failure, but it would be a big disappointment losing a third consecutive final.”
That pressure of that potential disappointment seemed to be getting to Argentina coach Gerardo Martino, at least temporarily, on Saturday. The abrupt answers with which he started his press conference would have made a certain NFL coach who used to work in the Meadowlands and now torments reporters in Boston pretty proud. It took several questions until Martino even acknowledged that forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, who broke his arm in the semifinal win over the U.S., would be unavailable Sunday (midfielder Augusto Fernández was the only other Argentine ruled out).
“I don’t think a lot of analysis is good to do right now. We have to focus on the final ahead. When I refer to the analysis we’ve done about the past [second-place finishes], it’s asked a lot and a lot is written about the answers I give. I prefer for it not to be written. What I prefer is to play well tomorrow and to win the game,” Martino said when asked about how he looks back at Argentina’s recent final failures.
The manager later spoke to the room full of reporters directly and said, “There are too many of you. Normally, there are less of you. Today, there are more of you and I get a little flustered.”
An hour later, Díaz and Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi seemed considerably more relaxed. Pizza called Sunday’s final “the most important match of my career,” but said he has “the hope and the trust that we can play a good match and that we can win the cup once more.”
Díaz, who plays his club soccer in Spain for Celta Vigo, elaborated.
“We feel very well satisfied because I think throughout our football history, this is the only national team that has really managed to face off against teams on the level such as Argentina, Germany and Spain,” he said. “We’re enjoying the fruits of the work we’ve embarked on for many years and now we’re really reaping the benefits of all that hard work … Don’t doubt for a second that even if we’re not able to achieve our goal [Sunday], we’re going to keep working hard for it because we want Chile’s name to be one of the top ones in the world.”
Argentina’s name already is thanks to a pair of World Cup titles, three runner-up finishes, 14 Copa América crowns, one Confederations Cup and a host of other honors. It is elite, whether the last trophy came 23 years ago or not, and it’s led by a man who Pizzi called “the most transcendent player in history.”
Argentines who point to Maradona’s World Cup win as the difference will disagree. Ousted FIFA president Sepp Blatter recently told a story about Messi accepting the Golden Ball trophy following the 2014 World Cup final at the Estádio Maracanã and saying repeatedly, “The best, but not the champion.” On Friday, Messi quickly called that anecdote “a lie.” Considering Blatter’s track record, it probably is. But everyone can imagine Messi thinking it. He’s waited and suffered and been shut out at the end of each of the past two summers. Sunday represents a chance to thrill his country and add to his legacy.
“It's been almost a year since the last Copa América, and I think that made us stronger as a group, and as a team. We grew a lot, in a lot of ways, and above all, even though we didn't win, it helped us,” Messi said. “Now is the time to give everything because we are very close to achieving the objective that we came here to achieve.”
Martino put it more succinctly.
“What we can’t do is lose another cup final,” he said.