East Rutherford, N.J – Chile won their second consecutive Copa America (a Centenario, no less) but it was Lionel Messi who inevitably became the story.
It was always going to be about Messi. Had Argentina won the Copa, Messi would have been celebrated for ending a trophy drought that has lasted for over 20 years, and would finally escape Diego Maradona’s heavy shadow.
Instead, Argentina lost a third straight final, and a dejected and inconsolable Messi announced to a throng of incredulous journalists that he was hanging up his Albiceleste boots.
“For me, the national team is over” – Lionel Messi
Only a few minutes earlier, Chile’s coach, Juan Manuel Pizzi, had been lauding his fellow Argentine after being asked whether Argentineans would ever regard him as the best, given that he had failed to deliver a trophy wearing his nation’s colors, yet again. “I guide myself by numbers,” Pizzi responded. “His are unequaled. I think Messi is the best player in history.”
That was the last question of Pizzi’s press conference, underlying the fact that Messi’s skied spot-kick was the story and not his team’s accomplishment. And that was before his announcement set social media abuzz.
While many will claim otherwise, the captain’s decision was not merely a rash pronouncement, but a manifestation of a bigger problem. Yes, it is inarguable that Messi has largely shouldered the pressure of his country’s expectations, and perhaps by calling it quits he can, to some degree, turn a deaf ear to the criticism that has accompanied his trophy-less national team career. Yet, with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano also evaluating their national team careers, it appears that the dysfunction surrounding the Argentine FA – which has been commandeered by FIFA – has taken its toll on the players, even though Tata Martino claimed otherwise, saying, “none of what happened in the political arena has had any influence on our ability to play well.”
One has to wonder if Gonzalo Higuain is another of those players. Once the Messi hysteria dies down, the light of infamy will shine squarely on the Napoli striker. His wayward lob early in the first half marks the third straight final where he’s let a clear scoring chance go begging. In last year’s Copa America final, which also saw Chile overcome Argentina in penalties, Higuain added to the misery of his missed opportunity during the game by blasting his penalty shot over Claudio Bravo’s crossbar.
Like Messi, Higuain has never quite been accepted by his own fans, and as much as he’s accomplished for Real Madrid and Napoli (especially this record setting season), his frequent mishaps in crucial national team games have irreparably blighted his reputation at home. When asked to comment on his striker’s misfortune, Martino took a slight pause that betrayed the diplomatic answer that followed. “He made a great effort. He’ll continue trying like the rest of the team,” he said, before walking off the dais to shouting Argentine supporters outside the glass-walled press conference room.
Where Argentina goes from here is hard to tell. Losing Messi alone is already a tremendous hit to a team that has not yet proven it can do without him. To lose another two or three players to whom it would be an insult to refer to as supporting cast would be an almost fatal blow to a team, which, until yesterday, had aspirations to become the world’s best. Not to mention that Martino will likely pack his bags, as well, leaving Argentina rudderless from top to bottom.
“We managed to put together a group of players that we have to admire.” – Juan Manuel Pizzi
Listening to a humble Juan Manuel Pizzi’s post-match press conference at Met Life Stadium, one would be forgiven for forgetting that his appointment had come into question not long after he replaced Jorge Sampaioli. Having led Chile to its first Copa America win last summer, Sampaoli left big shoes to fill, and a first home Word Cup qualifying defeat to Argentina, as well as two surprising defeats to Jamaica and Mexico had the Vultures circling Pizzi. The Centenario was certainly the last metric before a decision was made concerning the Argentine’s future.
When asked what he was feeling, Pizzi acknowledged the difficult start to his tenure, praised his players, and then spoke about his own career. “I’ve had more disappointment in my career than success,” Pizzi said, before regurgitating a list of near accomplishments. He then added, “so I make a point to enjoy a moment like this.”
Other than the festivities on the field, there didn’t seem to be much partying going on in Chile’s dressing room. Apart from an unidentified Chilean staff member who kept flashing his winner’s medal to the Argentine media, most of the players passed rather quietly through the mixed zone, and made their way to the team bus.
It was on the bus, with the Copa America trophy proudly displayed at the front, that the celebrations begun, with players singing and banging on the windows.
Unfortunately, with Messi’s resignation unquestionably overshadowing Chile’s win, most of the media was still inside the bowels of the stadium wondering if his skied spot-kick was his last with the Albiceleste.
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny