Don't blame Messi
Genius can't keep carrying average Argentina
- Chile win 4-1 on penalties
Lionel Messi never moved.
As Ever Banega fluffed Argentina's decisive third penalty, heads dropped on the halfway line.
The dream was over, bar the shouting from Chilean hero Alexis Sanchez.
But Messi froze. In Copa America defeat, he stood out in the crowd, together with his broken teammates but slightly apart.
He was unbowed, but incomplete.
For so long, his career asterisk was sketched in pencil. But Chile's triumph inked its confirmation.
Messi's resume, the finest of his generation, comes with a permanent caveat. He's unlikely to touch an international trophy now.
And that just feels unfair, so utterly and inescapably unfair.
A talent capable of such breathless beauty was suppressed yesterday morning (Singapore time) by too much ugly cynicism.
Messi's most memorable involvement in the Copa America final was to be assaulted by Gary Medel - booted in the chest with the ball in another postcode.
Medel earned a yellow. On another day, it might have been a red. On another occasion, Chile's back three might have made the long walk.
The hosts' first continental title warrants the nationwide street parties that will inevitably follow.
And Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli must be credited for curtailing the creative exploits of Argentina's attack.
A Chilean backline of essentially three defensive midfielders, led by the bulldog-necked Medel, ensured Argentina's exhibition stuff in the semi-final would not be repeated.
Their stuttering display in the final was never in danger of exhausting the superlatives. This was the hangover after all that semi-final hedonism - a repeat of their World Cup boom-and-bust cycle.
Argentina had peaked too soon. And so had Messi.
In his homeland, and South America generally, the greatest player of all time still finds himself shackled to a ghost, unable to escape Diego Maradona's shadow.
Messi does it for his club Barcelona in almost every game, in every competition, across just about every season. He is the king of the Catalans.
But the iron throne still belongs to Maradona back home. He did it for his country.
And so does Messi. Or at least he tried in Santiago. He laboured in vain, hamstrung by both Chile's tireless, physical approach and Argentina's erratic performers.
In stoppage time after 90 minutes, Messi escaped his Chilean tags and slipped in Ezequiel Lavezzi, but his rolled pass was over-hit and the hapless Gonzalo Higuain smacked the side netting.
Messi was otherwise manacled by up to five Chileans. Three of his man-handlers were on yellow cards by half-time and Medel made it his mission to maim Messi whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The Estadio Nacional turned into a holding pen, with Medel playing the sheepdog.
If Chile's dogged display represented sport's ability to shred every nerve and sinew in pursuit of collective glory, the final's actual content defined the tournament's cynicism.
The hosts' victory was romantic, certainly, but if that's the game's only purpose, then 60,000 spectators could've gathered together to watch Hugh Grant's Love Actually on a big screen.
Mauricio Isla checked Marcos Rojo. Jean Beausejour held back the tidal runs of Pablo Zabaleta. Sanchez held his nerve to score the winning penalty with a scuffed Panenka chip and Medel booted Messi.
There was nothing between them apart from Medel's studs.
Chile deserved victory, but Messi will not deserve the predictable postmortem. Expect interrogations along the lines of, "after winning a second treble this season, Lionel, where did it all go wrong?"
There is no case to answer. Messi is a man among mostly mediocre man.
Angel di Maria's fragility, Javier Pastore and Sergio Aguero's inconsistency and Higuain's anonymity are more pressing concerns for Argentina to address.
To insist that Messi's genius requires further validation is like suggesting Michelangelo's legacy remains in doubt for not painting enough ceilings.
Messi painted his Sistine Chapel onto a Barcelona canvas. Twice. With a pair of trebles already in his portfolio, anything else is a bonus.
But his international efforts are continually undermined by the ineptitude of others. La Albiceleste demanded more of Messi when he should have demanded more of La Albiceleste.
As a poignant reminder, he was the only Argentinian to score in the shoot-out, his art imitating life once more. In every sense, as always, he was the last man standing.
The Copa America final was undoubtedly a Chile night, mostly because Messi had once again been left out in the cold.
At some point, Messi is going to win something with Argentina. We thought this was an opportunity to make our mark, but we could not. It hurts a lot.
— Argentina forward Ezequiel Lavezzi
Comparisons to Maradona, again
IDOLS: Argentina fans with a banner depicting (from left) Diego Maradona, Pope Francis and Lionel Messi. PHOTOS: AFP
Another tournament, another shattering defeat and another round of unfavourable comparisons to Diego Maradona.
Lionel Messi was left reflecting on another bitterly familiar failure, after Argentina suffered an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat by Chile in the Copa America final yesterday morning (Singapore time).
It was the second time in 12 months Messi had finished on the losing side in a major final, following Argentina's extra-time loss to Germany at the World Cup last year.
"This generation is desperate to win a title with the national team," Messi had said, before the final.
"As a team, we deserve to win something and it would mean so much after the World Cup where we came so close."
This latest defeat will reignite the debate about where Messi deserves to be ranked in the pantheon of the very greatest players to have graced the sport, especially alongside countryman Diego Maradona.
For many, his extraordinary achievements at club level with Barcelona over the past decade have already guaranteed him a place alongside Pele and Maradona.
Others insist that his failure to lead his country to international glory puts him just behind Pele and Maradona, who won four World Cups between them.
Statistically at least, Messi outscores Maradona in almost every department. He has already chalked up 46 goals in 103 international appearances compared to Maradona's 34 goals in 91 games.
At club level, Messi has amassed 412 goals in 482 games, compared to Maradona's 312 in 588 matches.
Messi has won three European Cups with Barcelona; the famous trophy is conspicuously absent from Maradona's CV.
Messi has been named World Footballer of the Year four times; Maradona earned the accolade only once.
Yet the arguments invariably circle back to trophies at international level.
Although Messi played a key role in Argentina reaching the final of last year's World Cup in Brazil, his achievements at international level have not seared themselves in the memory in the way that Maradona's did during his displays in the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona is largely credited with single-handedly guiding Argentina to that World Cup title in Mexico, scoring a series of memorable individual goals along the way.
Even in the 1986 final, where he was shackled by Germany's Lothar Matthaeus, Maradona was able to prove a decisive influence, orchestrating the moves that contributed to all of Argentina's goals in the 3-2 triumph, including supplying the sublime first-time pass to set up the game's winning goal.
Messi is 28, and he has at least one more shot to lead Argentina to glory at the 2018 World Cup in Moscow, and the Copa, again, the following year.
But the clock is ticking fast, for the player and his admirers. - AFP.
Who scored more
Messi: 46 goals in 103 games; Maradona: 34 goals in 91 games
Messi: 412 goals in 482 games; Maradona: 312 goals in 588 games
Javier Mascherano has finished on the losing side in three Copa America finals (2004, 2007 and 2015).
"Three Copa America finals, three defeats... I can't explain the losing streak," a dejected Mascherano said, after Argentina crashed to a 4-1 penalty shoot-out loss to hosts Chile.