Lionel Messi ticked the last empty box of his illustrious football career on Saturday night as Argentina beat hosts Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America in Rio de Janeiro.
It was Messi’s first trophy with Argentina after a string of painful, agonizing, catastrophic failures, including the most disappointing defeat of his career against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final – inside the same stadium, in Rio’s Hawking Maracana.
When the whistle blew to end the final, Messi – his sense of relief – fell to his knees and was immediately surrounded by his teammates. Moments later, they were lifting it above their shoulders and tossing it in the air.
In more than a decade at the top of his game, Messi, 34, had won almost every football honor with his Spanish club team, Barcelona: every award, every accolade, every cup, championship and trophy.
And after a painful year, he had failed to win anything with Argentina.
His friend ngel Di María finally gave the prize, putting the Argentine ahead in the 22nd minute after collecting a long cross-field pass to the right wing from midfielder Rodrigo de Paul. After controlling the ball on the bounce with a single touch with his left foot to Brazilian left Renan Lodi, Di María then arranged himself and – lifting the ball with the same foot above his next bounce – a Sent a shot at the Brazilian goalkeeper, Ederson, who landed softly behind the Brazilian’s next.
As Messi and the rest of the Argentine team ran to celebrate with Di Maria, the Brazilians were stunned. The goal was only the third that he allowed in the tournament.
Messi took Argentina to Brazil last month as he chased down the kind of trophy he had longed for. He led the Copa America this summer with four goals and five assists, but he had done so before, and then fell short of the final victory.
The barrage of repeated failures – at the World Cup in 2014, and the Copa America final in 2015 and again in 2016 – saw Messi retire from the national team at least twice. But both times he succumbed to the chase of that first senior title, and returned. In the same month, Argentine players made it their mission to reach it.
De Paul said before the semi-final, ‘Messi is one step ahead of all of us. “We are all on the same path. What counts is victory.”
Everyone expected Saturday’s game from the two biggest powers in South America; Brazilian star Neymar tore a six-inch piece of his shorts in the first half, and Messi made a rare scissor tackle on the sideline at one point.
Chasing the game, Brazil sent on a wave of attackers after halftime: Roberto Firmino came on the break and, later, was followed by Vinicius Jr. and Gabriel Barbosa, as the Brazilian pressed for a goal.
Richardson thought he had leveled the score in the 52nd minute, when he ran off a lead ball from Lucas Paqueta and hit a low home shot. But replays showed he had broken the split of a second early, and the goal was denied for offside.
Two minutes later he was in again this time, but his shot was stopped at close range and pushed by the Argentine goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez.
Opportunities kept coming, both sides – even Messi blew one by one in the goal mouth late in the game – but as the minutes wore on, the tackles got rougher. And while arguments for dives and foul calls were made more vigorous, the score did not change.
Messi was ultimately the champion in blue and white of Argentina.