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Brazil and Argentina, Neymar and Messi Set Stage for an Epic Copa América Final

This hasn't been a classic Copa América tournament, but it's due to have a classic final, one packed with stakes for the teams and individuals involved.

Neymar wanted Argentina. Well, Neymar has Argentina.

For the first time since 2007, South American titans Brazil and Argentina will meet in the Copa América final, with the latter's dramatic penalty-kick triumph (3–2, thanks to Emi Martínez's three saves in the shootout) over Colombia in Tuesday's semifinal (following a foul-laden 1–1 draw) setting up the headlining title bout.

It'll pit Superclásico rivals against one another and put friends-turned-opponents Neymar and Lionel Messi in the final limelight, with both knowing what a title would mean in the legacy conversation. Saturday night's final at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro may not have the atmosphere a South American championship deserves due to coronavirus protocols, but it will serve as a grand setting for the two teams, their leading men and supporting casts. It'll cap a tournament that has been anything but a classic with a final that has the chance to deliver like one.

Argentina's history, especially over the last seven years with Messi, is no secret. After three brutal, consecutive defeats in finals (2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa América, 2016 Copa América Centenario), Argentina hasn't come particularly close to winning anything, leading to fair questions over whether the national team had wasted Messi's peak and spurned its best chance with him in tow to end a national trophy drought that dates back to the 1993 Copa América. This version is not Argentina's best team in Messi's career, at least not on paper, but it could wind up being its most effective for this point in time. The levels of pressure and expectation may not be as high given the past failures and the makeup of the squad, with most of the veterans attached to those failures having moved on. Of those who played in the 2014 World Cup final for Argentina—whose site is that of this Copa América final—only Messi appeared Tuesday.

He has been superb in this tournament and is still very much the focal point, the player on which the team is dependent for success. He has four goals and five assists in the competition (the last assist set up Lautaro Martínez for an early go-ahead goal in the semifinals), contributing to nine of Argentina's 11 goals. He also rifled home his penalty kick in the shootout, erasing some bad memories of what occurred in the 2016 final at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, when his miss contributed to a second straight defeat to Chile (and a temporary, knee-jerk international retirement).

Brazil and Argentina will play for the Copa America title

While they haven't met in a final in 14 years, Argentina and Brazil have locked horns on the Copa América stage since, and recently. Argentina's last loss, period, came two years ago, to Brazil, in Copa América. The 2–0 semifinal defeat gave way to a third-place finish and kicked off a 19-match unbeaten run that leads into Saturday's final. 

Brazil will be the favorite, based on its status as host and based on the talent it has on paper. Yet for all the focus on what Messi hasn't won for his country, it's only prudent to point out that Neymar hasn't technically delivered a major trophy to his, either. You can flag the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil won if you'd like, but aside from that, Neymar's lone gold medal for Brazil has come on the Olympic stage. He achieved that as one of host Brazil's over-age selections at Rio 2016. Messi has won Olympic gold as well—as an age-eligible star on the rise in Beijing 2008.

The Copa América and World Cup titles are the holy grails by which these stars are ultimately going to be judged. Brazil won its 2019 Copa América without Neymar, who had to withdraw with an injury before the competition began, so while he has been a central figure in the team's success and evolution and remains on course to surpass Pelé's national scoring record by a wide margin, he has some unfinished business from a personal standpoint.

It's only appropriate, then, that these two global superstars duel on the final stage to give this tournament an injection of intrigue. This Copa América has been clouded by criticism. The initial plan, for Argentina and Colombia to co-host it, went up in smoke due to COVID-19 surges in one country and political unrest in the other and was moved to a location that features both. Players and coaches have been outspoken about the foolishness, and Brazil had mulled a boycott before pulling back. With the planned guest nations, Qatar and Australia, pulling out months prior, CONMEBOL went ahead with two groups of five, playing a full group stage in empty stadiums for the purpose of eliminating two teams—another act of foolishness. It also certainly didn't help that teams went from playing opponents in World Cup qualifying to days later facing off again in Copa America. It took away from the lack of uniqueness that the competition can bring.

Yet for all of the gripes, the two clear top sides in South America right now have emerged through the knockout stage, led by their two phenoms who are playing well and playing with points to prove. At the end of this monthlong slog, the stakes are actually quite high. For Messi and Argentina, it's a chance to quiet years worth of doubters and critics while putting an end to a trophy drought (and pulling even with Uruguay for most Copa titles all-time at 15). That it could come while its nation still grieves the loss of Diego Maradona would only be more apropos. For Neymar and Brazil, it's an opportunity to complete a unique Copa América repeat a year out from a World Cup that it'll hope and expect to win while closing the gap on Argentina and Uruguay in the all-time annals. Where Argentina sees a milestone, Brazil sees a building block. That one side's goal will be achieved at the expense of the other will only heighten the sense of the occasion, and regardless of how they got there, a Brazil-Argentina final with this set of leading actors will be a sight to behold. 

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