Once again, they were stopped at the gates of glory. Once again, they saw champions from the worst place on Earth get crowned. And once again, they must live with the knowledge that they could’ve done better because of the sheer caliber of their players.
But if there’s something that makes soccer beautiful, it’s precisely the need for a team to function as a collective whole in order to elevate each individual’s skill. Each player serves the team, not the other way around. That’s something the Selección hasn’t managed to learn yet, and for that reason, they’ve had to watch another team lift the prized trophy.
This time, their rival was Chile, a team that came out to play the final, hungry to win the cup for the first time in history.
The home team didn’t have the best opportunities but dominated the entire game, and even though its superiority didn’t translate to the scoreboard, its victory through the penalty shootout was well deserved.
Nearly 60,000 roaring Chilean fans filled Santiago’s National Stadium, eager to witness a historic victory against their trans-Andean neighbor, with whom they have maintained a classic rivalry. (Much like Argentina’s ongoing rivalry with Uruguay. And Brazil. Damn.)
(Kind of like that, but with soccer.)
Chile took the helm at the beginning of the game, controlling the ball and dominating the tempo with long passes behind the defenders’ backs. It wasn’t until the fourth minute that Argentina managed to get a hold of the ball for more than 10 seconds, but it was a drop in the Chilean ocean, as the red tide kept on with its incessant pressure, translated into a good volley by Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal which forced Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero to react at full speed.
However, Argentina started to even things out, led by captain and forward Lionel Messi who sent a crossed ball to striker Sergio Agüero, who almost broke the tie with a header blocked by Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. The game developed with the intensity proper to a final. Both teams dedicated themselves to running and kicking the shit out of each other more than actually playing.
Argentina didn’t get close to the level displayed during the semi finals and mostly laid its hopes on Messi doing something Messianic. However, the best player in the world was always surrounded by at least three Chileans stalking him in a way that would have almost warranted calling the cops.
The second half started the same way as the first, with Chile using its resources in a better way and Argentina holding on, relying on corner kicks as its only way of getting close to the goal. Messi? Still surrounded. Took him 15 minutes to actually touch the ball.
As minutes passed, Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez took over the attack and got his team closer to Romero’s goal, but never posed an actual threat. Chile dominated the game but never cornered its rival. The most important play came on the last minute. For the first time in 90 minutes, Messi got open field and led a counter-attack that striker Gonzalo Higuaín couldn’t finish by less than 10 centimeters, which would’ve given Argentina the Copa América.
Both teams played the extra time as they should have: with more heart than brain. Argentina felt the intensity’s consequences, as forward Ezequiel Lavezzi and midfielder Javier Mascherano cramped up in the first half. Mascherano, who has been compared to Chuck Norris due to the immense sacrifices he makes every game, missed a ball due to a glitch in the matrix that almost led to a Chilean goal.
Nothing really happened in the last 15 minutes. The players were exhausted and seemed to be hoping for the game to come to a close with the always unpredictable penalty shootout.
In the blink of an eye, Higuaín sent his penalty all the way to Argentina and midfielder Éver Banega missed his shot. Then Alexis Sánchez scored and unleashed Chilean madness.
Once again, Argentine players had to watch the coronation ceremony from the field, just as they did for last year’s World Cup as well as three out of the last four Copa Americas (’03, ’07, ’15). Defeat is becoming dangerously familiar to these players. The Selección’s last victory goes back to 1993’s continental championship, when beepers and Jurassic Park were a thing: an insane amount of time for a country in which you can lift a rock and find a world-class soccer player.
It’s a tough loss for fans and players looking to forget about Mario Götze’s infamous goal last year, but the one who’s probably suffering the most is Messi, always the scapegoat when things don’t work out the way they should. Most media outlets are focusing on his performance during the final instead of analyzing the entire team’s. Always in the spotlight, what Messi does is never enough and the burden of defeat always falls on him, since he’s supposed to beat entire professional teams, whose entire tactics are based on not letting him play, by himself. I can’t help but be partial when it comes to Messi.
Luckily, soccer always affords players another chance, and I dare say Messi is the one who will have the last laugh.