Lionel Messi’s long wait for an international trophy is finally over, with Argentina defeating Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final to fill in the biggest gap of his fabled career.
Angel Di Maria, starting for just the second time in the tournament, struck the decisive goal midway through the first half, latching onto a phenomenal low long pass from the impressive Rodrigo De Paul.
The PSG attacker cushioned the ball with a fabulous first touch off the outside of his left foot, before he lobbed the onrushing Ederson with a deft strike.
When the match ended, a tearful Messi dropped to his knees was mobbed by his Argentina team-mates before heading over to the smattering of his country’s fans in the stadium to lead the celebrations. The 78,000-seater Maracana was operating at just 10 per cent capacity for the match due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Victory also snaps Argentina’s 28-year wait for a title, with their previous trophy coming in the 1993 Copa America.
Brazil piled on the pressure in an exciting second half but even with five strikers on the field they could not get an equaliser against an Argentine defence protected by the outstanding De Paul.
Messi finished the tournament’s joint top goalscorer with four goals and collected his individual honour for player of the tournament before getting his hands on the trophy itself.
But in truth, he was quiet throughout the final and uncharacteristically missed a golden opportunity to wrap the game up with just two minutes remaining.
After being picked out by De Paul, Messi had the ball and the game at his feet in the six-yard area but appeared to lose his footing and Ederson promptly smothered the opening. Fortunately for him, Brazil were unable to make him pay despite five minutes of time added on at the end.
And while Messi was subdued, the same can be said for Brazil talisman Neymar, who was left in tears by the result at the final whistle. He was central to his team’s play but he and they struggled to break down a stern and stubborn Argentina defence.
After a tentative first half, Brazil coach Tite tried to change the dynamic of the match by replacing defensive midfielder Fred – who was booked in just the third minute of the game – for Roberto Firmino, and it certainly injected some impetus to their play.
Richarlison thought he had equalised shortly into the second period but his effort was correctly ruled out for offside.
But though the Selecao had more ball posession there were few real opportunities from then on. Gabriel Barbosa stung the palms of Emi Martinez late on, but it was a save the Argentina stopper would have been disappointed not to make.
The victory was Argentina’s 15th Copa America triumph and means they draw level with Uruguay as the all-time leading winners.
‘I can’t cry yet,’ Di Maria said after the match. ‘We dreamed of getting this, and we fought. Many people criticized us and asked us not to come back (to the national team).’
Their win extended their sequence of undefeated matches to 20 under Lionel Scaloni and handed Brazil their first competitive defeat since they lost to Belgium in the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
Victory also caps a remarkable comeback on the international scene for Messi. He was so upset at losing to Chile on penalties in the Copa America final of 2016, exactly as he had done a year before, that he retired from international football.
He changed his mind a few weeks later and helped drag an inconsistent Argentina to the World Cup finals in Russia where once again they crashed out to eventual champions France in the last 16.
Messi failed to score in the knockout stages of the World Cup for the fourth time in a row, raising even more questions about his place on the all-time greats list. But with this win, all those doubts have finally been erased once and for all.