SANTIAGO, Chile — As the last penalty of this Copa America final was taken, Lionel Messi stood slightly apart from the rest of the Argentina team, hands clasped tightly behind his back. When Alexis Sanchez’s shot hit the back of the net and the sea of red-clad fans inside the Estadio Nacional here erupted, Messi remained motionless for a few long, poignant seconds, staring straight ahead, before walking away. There was just time enough for a slow gaze over his shoulder at the wildly cavorting Chilean players near the corner flag before he was embraced by a supportive teammate.
Such disappointment is not an unfamiliar feeling for Messi—after the 2007 Copa America and the 2014 World Cup, this was the third time he has tasted defeat in a major international final. Accustomed to success as he is with Barcelona, such a record of failure will be hard for the world’s greatest player to stomach. Placed in the context of Argentina’s long trophy drought, which now stands at 22 years and counting, it becomes even more painful.
The country’s last taste of international glory came on July 4th, 1993 when Alfio Basile’s side beat Mexico 2–1 in the Copa America final in Ecuador. Gabriel Batistuta was Argentina’s hero that day with two goals, thumping home the first after a driving run, then smacking in current Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone’s throw-in for the winner. A couple of thousand miles away in the Argentine city of Rosario, Messi had just celebrated his sixth birthday and was playing for the junior team of local side Grandoli.
If Batistuta’s goals did not ultimately become shots heard around the world, it is for two reasons. One is the often less than starry global profile of the Copa America. The other is that in those days Argentina winning trophies was hardly headline news. Carried by such stars as Daniel Passarella, Mario Kempes, Batistuta and the incomparable Diego Maradona, the team lifted the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, reached the final in 1990 and won the Copa America in 1991.
Although Maradona was soon to enter the troubled, drug-shadowed twilight years of his career, there was little to suggest that Argentina’s success would come to an end any time soon. As well as its established stars, the country’s stocks of talent were seemingly being constantly replenished, with wins in five out of seven FIFA U-20 World Cup triumphs between 1995 and 2007.
Nine of Gerardo Martino’s squad in Chile emerged from the triumphant 2005 (Fernando Gago, Ezequiel Garay, Pablo Zabaleta, Lucas Biglia, Sergio Aguero and Messi) and 2007 (Sergio Romero, Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria) sides. In the semifinals, that 2007 team beat a Chile side containing Gary Medel, Mauricio Isla, Arturo Vidal and Sanchez on its way to glory.
No one watching Batistuta’s goals that day in Guayaquil in 1993 would have imagined the prolonged, harrowing trophy drought that Argentina was about to suffer. Since that year, one of the world’s proudest footballing nations has gone six World Cups and seven Copa Americas without tasting success.
In the last two Copa Americas, for example, Argentina was thrashed 3–0 by Brazil in the 2007 final in Venezuela, and then lost on penalties to Uruguay on home soil in the 2011 quarterfinals.
Losing in the South American tournament, however, is a mere bee sting compared to the pain of being knocked out of the World Cup. In 1994, Argentina lost 3–2 to a Gheorghe Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu-inspired Romania in the Round of 16 in Pasadena after Maradona had been sent home for testing positive for the banned substance ephedrine. Then, in 1998, Dennis Bergkamp’s wonder goal for the Netherlands knocked out Daniel Passarella’s team in the quarterfinals.
Four years later Argentina slumped out of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan in the group stage after failing to score a goal from open play, but greater things were expected in 2006 when, led by that great midfield grand master Juan Roman Riquelme, Jose Pekerman’s team crushed Serbia and Montenegro 6–0 in the group phase in a match remembered both for Esteban Cambiasso’s second-half goal that followed a sublime team move and for Messi’s substitute appearance in the same game, which made him the youngest player ever to represent Argentina at a World Cup.
Once again, however, Argentina was to disappoint, losing to Germany on penalties in the quarterfinals after leading the game until the 80th minute. There was further heartbreak in 2010, when a side shambolically coached by Maradona was thrashed 4–0 by the same opposition in the same round.
Alejandro Sabella sacrificed some of his team’s attacking flair for greater defensive diligence to reach the World Cup final in Brazil last summer, but the ultimate result was the same: A disconsolate Messi, who had dragged his team through the group phase before tiring in the knockout round, standing with his hands on his hips as the light bled from the Rio de Janeiro sky and he faced the prospect of once again returning home empty-handed.
History repeated itself for Messi and Argentina here in Santiago. Jorge Sampaoli’s admirably high-intensity Chile side may lack some of Germany’s smooth elegance, but as the shadows crept over the Estadio Nacional pitch in the second half, the crowd, sensing that victory was a real possibility, grew louder.
Its optimism was caused by the fact that Argentina and Messi, notwithstanding a few scintillating attacking moments from the latter, had failed to reproduce the fluidity and cohesion of its 6–1 crushing of Paraguay in the semifinals.
This final, played amidst a hectic, raucous atmosphere in front of a sea of almost unrelenting Chilean red, neatly reflected the tournament that had come before it: fiercely competitive and occasionally acrimonious, but with no little skill and attacking flair on display from both sides.
There were chances at both ends, notably when Charles Aranguiz dropped a long pass into Sanchez’s wheelhouse in the second half, the forward spinning and smashing a volley just wide, and then when Gonzalo Higuaín failed by inches to turn in Lavezzi’s cross in stoppage time. There was pressure from both sides in extra time, and then it was on to the fear and loathing of penalties.
Argentina’s footballing pedigree, and the all-world status of some of its players, meant Chile had assumed the role of the underdog here, and the fighting spirit that such status engenders may have given Sampaoli’s players mental strength in the penalty shootout. When Angel Di Maria was substituted in the 29th minute, there were rowdy cheers of relief from the stands, and Messi, normally treated with respect, even deference, by fans of Argentina’s South American rivals for all that he has achieved in club football, received howls of derision every time he touched the ball, and when tumbling to the ground after being fouled. When Higuaín smashed his penalty over the bar and Banega’s effort was stopped by Bravo, there was an almost inevitable feel to the proceedings.
Now this talented generation of Argentina players must face not only another empty-handed return home from a tournament, but the prospect that they will not be able to add a major international trophy to their storied club resumés. The future of the proposed “centenary” Copa America in the USA in 2016 looks in doubt now that the competition has been identified by the FBI as a key part in the FIFA corruption scandal, and the three years between this gripping competition in Chile and the next World Cup in Russia will feel terribly long for Argentina, its fans and its players. Mascherano will be 34 by the time the final is played, Messi 31 and Di Maria and Aguero 30, their bodies bruised and buffeted by the incessant demands of top-level club soccer. It will be their last big international tournament, if they make it that far.
A number of big, passionate soccer-obsessed countries have endured similar or worse droughts. England fans, for example, are unlikely to have much sympathy for Argentina’s tears. And plenty of gifted international generations have failed to turn their talent into trophies—the Holland team at the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, for example, which boasted legends such as Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep, was arguably more talented, and undoubtedly better coached, than some of these Argentinian sides, but ended up losing in the final of both competitions.
By their very nature international sides are born, not bought, and weaknesses cannot be fixed with the flash of a checkbook. The standard take on the Argentina sides of last year’s World Cup and this Copa America is that they have been rich in attacking firepower but poor in defensive nous, although ironically enough it was a lack of goals when it counted, rather than a porous defense, that cost the team dear in Brazil and now here in Chile.
And then there is Messi. The trophies he has won and the footballing miracles he has performed at Barcelona are now the stuff of legend, and he had a good tournament here in Chile, producing a virtuoso display in the team's semifinal against Paraguay, and even providing a number of thrilling moments in the final, when not shackled by Chilean defensive watchdogs such as Vidal and Aranguiz.
Yet as in Brazil, Messi stood alone and sorrowful at the end, his shoulders slumped. The contrast with the celebrating Chilean players and fans, who had just seen their own 99-year Copa America drought come to an end, could not have been greater. Other than the gold medal he won at the 2008 Olympics and that 2005 U-20 World Cup win, the international trophy cabinet of this greatest of players stands empty, and after this Copa America, the sixth major tournament where he has failed to taste victory, it may now remain so permanently.
“Love is so short, forgetting is so long,” wrote the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The career of a soccer player, even one as great as Messi, is short too, and lives on only in the warmth of memory and the coldness of historical record. It is to be hoped that he may yet get one more chance to bring World Cup glory to Argentina and end his country’s long trophy drought. If not, the forgetting of the failures of Messi and this talented group of players will be long indeed.