Two long droughts ended on Saturday at the Copa América final. Argentina won their first major title since 1993 with a 1-0 win against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and Lionel Messi finally lifted his first major trophy for the national team, filling in one of the biggest gaps in his decorated career.
‘I needed to remove from myself the thorn of achieving something with the national team,’ said the Argentina captain after raucous celebrations.
His side’s winning goal at the Maracanã came in the 22nd minute after Rodrigo De Paul made a long pass to Ángel Di Maria, who took advantage of some sloppy defending from the left-back Renan Lodi to control the ball and loft it over Ederson.
When the match ended, a tearful Messi was thrown into the air by his joyous teammates. Once criticised by Argentina fans for his quietness, he went to the few hundred guests chanting his name at the Maracanã. Messi kissed the trophy before lifting it into the air to celebrate his country’s 15th Copa América, a title that drew Argentina level with Uruguay’s all-time record.
‘The happiness is immense,’ said Messi. ‘Many times I dreamed of this. I had a lot of confidence in this group that became very strong since the last Copa América. It is a group of very good people, who always push forward, who never complain about anything.’
In an Instagram post showing him in the dressing-room with the trophy, he wrote: ‘What a beautiful madness! This is unbelievable! Thank you, God! We are the champions!’
Emiliano Martínez, the Aston Villa goalkeeper who has been one of Argentina’s key players in the tournament, said Messi ‘is the one who most deserved’ to win the South American title.
Messi spent some time after the final whistle consoling his former teammate Neymar, who is still yet to win a trophy with the Brazil national team.
Lionel Scaloni made five changes from the Argentina side that beat Colombia on penalties in their semi-final. Gonzalo Montiel, Cristian Romero, Marcos Acuña, Leandro Paredes and Di María took the places of Nahuel Molina, Nicolás Tagliafico, Guido Rodríguez and Nicolás González. Brazil, a team recognised for their steadiness, did not make any changes from the team that had got to the final.
Both teams started the game cautiously, with chances few and far between. Neymar tried hard with dribbles and passes but Brazil did little to work the Martínez in the first half. Argentina sat back, hoping for counterattacks.
Brazil’s coach, Tite, tried to change the dynamic of the match by replacing the defensive midfielder Fred with Roberto Firmino at half-time, but though his side enjoyed more possession they struggled to create opportunities.
Messi’s performance was not as impressive as in previous matches of the tournament, during which he scored four goals and had five assists. When he did find himself with a clear opportunity, in the 88th minute, he tried to dribble round Ederson only to be stopped by the Brazil goalkeeper.
Nonetheless, the eventual win will surely provide Messi with huge relief given the questions he has faced throughout his career about his effectiveness for the national team, whose last major title came when he was six years old. Playing for Argentina, Messi has lost three Copa América finals – to Brazil, 3-0 in 2007, and to Chile in 2015 and 2016, both on penalties – as well as the 2014 World Cup final to Germany in Rio.