The Argentina No. 10 may still go down as the finest player in history but there can surely be no denying that three final defeats in as many years is a significant disappointment
Of course, defeat here in New Jersey, nor in the previous two years, can be pinned squarely on his shoulders, just as all of Argentina’s victories cannot merely be put down to the magical No. 10.
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But to miss a penalty in the shootout defeat to Chile, having failed to recreate his fine form this summer over 120 minutes, is no doubt a major blot on a usually exquisitely kept copybook.
Stepping up to take his country’s first spot kick, after Arturo Vidal had already missed Chile’s opener, the Barcelona legend had an opportunity to give his side a decisive lead, both on the scoreboard and in the minds of the other 21 men on the pitch. But he blazed the ball high over the crossbar and into the stands. If Argentina was to win from here, the team would have to do it, for once and no matter how implausibly, despite Messi. They could not. Lucas Biglia’s effort was saved by Claudio Bravo, leaving Francisco Silva to rattle home the winner in repeat scenes of last year’s final.
It condemned Argentina to utter desolation. The players collapsed to the floor, almost as one. Messi just about managed to keep his emotions in check in 2014 and 2015 but could not here. He burst into tears.
Can any sportsman, amateur or professional, consider such relentless heartache? Losing three finals in as many years has never been done. This is an historic tragedy for Argentina, whose 23-year wait for a major honor goes on. This golden generation has come so close, but has failed each time.
Once again they can look back and wonder where they would be if Gonzalo Higuain could finish his chances in a major final. Two years ago in Brazil he hooked a gilt-edged chance wide of the post in a tight game that Germany would go on to win in extra-time. Last year he fired into the side netting from a narrowing angle in the Copa final against Chile, and then missed his penalty in a shootout. Here, he was lamentable again. Set through on goal after Gary Medel switched off, the Napoli striker took forever to decide what to do and then sent a tame chip wide of the post.
That was by far the best chance of the match. Had he scored just one of these efforts in the last three years, Messi may have already sewn up the debate about his legacy, and where he stands compared to Diego Maradona and Pele. But once again the supporting cast let him down.
His close friend, Sergio Aguero, who replaced the disappointing Higuain, would then uncharacteristically lash a great opportunity over the bar himself. It was a night for cool heads but few were up to the task. Indeed, two saw red in a first half dominated by elaborate referee Heber Lopes, a Brazilian, who booked Messi and two others, gave Alexis Sanchez an absolute dressing down and even blew the halftime whistle with enthusiastic jolts of the neck muscles. Thankfully he toned it down after the break. Not that the game opened up too much.
That was thanks in no small part to Chile’s aggressive approach. Messi spent the 120 minutes with at least two markers around him, usually three, sometimes as many as five.
For the most part he battled valiantly against them, beating the majority before being either crowded out or fouled. Indeed the tactic looked like it might be Chile’s undoing when Marcelo Diaz received two bookings, both for fouls on the No. 10, within the first 29 minutes. The tenacious midfielder was sent off and it appeared to be an uphill battle for Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men, but they stuck to their task, and were helped when Marcos Rojo was sent from the field just before halftime.
In the buildup to the match, Pizzi hailed Messi as the most transcendental footballer in history, and it’s hard to argue. No player has captured the imagination of neutrals so successfully as Messi, especially in this era of Vines, memes and instant Twitter reactions. Fans around the world gather round to watch his biggest matches, for club and country, urging him to surpass his exceptionally high standards. When he does, the collective joy is unmatched.
There would have been that collective desire to see him cement his legacy with a victory here. It would have been cathartic for many football fans who watched on disappointed as Argentina faltered against Germany and Chile.
The majority of the 82,000 people who came to MetLife stadium, mostly Argentines and many neutrals, came to see something special. They were well within their rights to expect it, too, given how he’s played in this competition so far. The U.S. fans have wanted more and more from him this summer and he has delivered without fail. The 19-minute hat trick against Panama, tying Argentina’s all-time scoring record in the quarterfinal, surpassing it with an exceptional free kick in the semis.
Everybody knows Chile’s merits but Messi, surely, was playing too well to be shackled all night. He was.
He had a chance to win it, for Argentina and for those dedicated neutrals, in the final minute of normal time, but fired just wide of the post following another dart into enemy territory.
Sergio Romero saved from Eduardo Vargas and Bravo denied Aguero in extra-time and to penalties it went.
Faced with the opportunity to end 23 years of hurt for his country, and maybe seal his legacy as the greatest, Messi, the captain, stepped up. That he only found one of the rows behind the goal cannot be glossed over. This was an uncharacteristic failure, but a failure all the same.
He had done enough in previous matches this summer to be crowned player of the tournament, especially given the lack of serious competition, but was somehow spurned in favor of Alexis in the post-match awards ceremony. Even claiming that award, though, would not have been enough.
Even if you are not of the opinion that Messi needs to win an international trophy to match Maradona and Pele, there can surely be no denying that a failure to secure one winners medal in three attempts is not good enough, when the topic of conversation is the greatest of all time. These are the highest of standards.
Messi may be better than any other footballer ever, he may unite fans across the world like no other in any sport, but this may be the lowest point in his career. His tears said it all.