Who answers the prayers of football gods? It seems sacrilege to question it now but, at long last, Lionel Messi has achieved greatness with Argentina. Perhaps not the most poetic form to begin telling his international story, but aged 34, despite all his club success, many doubted it could ever happen in an albiceleste shirt.
Such were the disappointments of his generation of players, for many reasons, it seemed impossible to see Messi’s Argentina lift a trophy. But they did it in scintillating fashion at Rio’s Maracanã in the Copa América final, the same arena that denied them glory in 2014.
And yet the goal that ended a 28-year drought for silverware did not come from the boot of Messi, but of Ángel Di María – a strike to serve as a late reminder that even Messi needed other leading figures to share the responsibility of making Argentina a champion again.
When Rodrigo De Paul’s pass released Di María behind the Brazilian defence, the few Argentinian supporters allowed in the stadium (due to pandemic limitations) watched a lifetime flash before their eyes.
Alone in front of ‘keeper Ederson, would Di María miss again, as so many others had done over almost three decades? Like Higuaín or Rodrigo Palacio at the World Cup final seven years before? Like Messi himself, who fired his penalty high above the crossbar and saw Argentina lose its second consecutive Copa América to Chile in 2016?
This time, there would be no more crying for Argentina. Di María’s goal was a replica of the one he scored at the 2008 Olympics final in Beijing – he and the goalkeeper, the lob, the celebration and the madness.
It was vindication for a group of players that at the time they claimed Games gold envisaged further success with the senior national team. That game was the return of hope. Thirteen years later, the term ‘victory’ scarcely seemed enough. This was redemption.
Lionel Scaloni, a former international right-back with a solid if unspectacular career in Europe, had won his first title as a coach, a task that had been assigned to so many men before, even Diego Maradona, to take Argentina out of the shadows.
Prior to the tournament, Argentina sports newspaper Olé ran a headline “Maradona in heaven, Messi on earth”, as if evoking a divine act that could help the selección.
Over the years of continuous failure, there had been no shortage of prayers to supernatural powers and Gods – Diego now among them.
During preparations for the 1986 World Cup, then manager Carlos Bilardo sent his players to Jujuy province, in north Argentina, to acclimatise to the altitude they would face in Mexico a few months later. In Tilcara, they invoked the protection of the city’s patroness, promising that, if they won the title, they would return to thank her for her sacred help.
However, that tour of gratitude didn’t happen immediately after the tournament which saw Argentina crowned world champions. In 2018, some of the players who’d lifted the trophy at the Azteca Stadium returned with the cup to make some sort of compensation with La Virgen and perhaps ask for her blessing on their successors in the famed blue and white stripes.
When that visit took place, a quarter of a century had passed since Argentina’s title at the Copa América in 1993, the last trophy for a country known as home of some of the great footballers – one of whom has been elected the best in the world six times.
Culturally, Argentinians tend to over-dramatise, even great defeats, as if they were part of who they are as a footballing country. It took almost a decade to convince themselves that Lionel Messi was in fact one of them, as national as carne and mate, who hailed from Rosario and not, in fact, Catalonia. Like Maradona, he had their blood running through his veins.
When the final whistle went in the Copa America final at the Maracanã, the number 10, in his tenth major tournament, dropped to his knees, only to be raised again by his teammates who celebrated the win, the salvation, as his as much as their country’s.
The scribes writing football’s history books will no longer omit the line that Lionel Messi achieved glory with Argentina. In Rio, where he’d come closest, as he was flung above the shoulders of his teammates, and perhaps with Diego looking down, Messi had finally touched heaven.
Bruno Rodrigues is a Brazilian who runs Futebolcafe which aims to highlight football journalism from across the world for a South American audience. Instagram: @futebolcafe
Arley Byrne is an illustrator based in England. He is a happy Yorkshireman who, according to the man himself, is almost good enough to lace Jimmy Milner’s boots. Instagram: @_yelradoodles
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