Rio de Janeiro: Whenever Lionel Messi walks into the sunset now, he won’t carry with him the jibes and criticism of having failed to win a title for Argentina, his national team.
Sunday’s 2021 Copa America final, in which he led Albiceleste to a 1-0 win over arch-rivals Brazil, ensured he was fifth-time lucky in the final of a major international tournament and he will have something to show to those who questioned his commitment to the national team.
Angel Di Maria struck in the 22nd minute, off a long ball by Rodrigo De Paul, as he lobbed the ball over goalkeeper Ederson to score the winning goal.
Apart from that strike, which was helped by slipshod defending from Renan Lodi, the Argentines weren’t that successful in breaching the Brazilian defence in the first half.
They had only three shots in the period. De Paul, however, was the shining star in midfield.
Messi himself shot wide off the goal in the 32nd minute as he couldn’t dribble past Brazilian defence completely and shot from outside the box.
The visitors were set back in the 52nd minute as Richarlison netted the ball. However, relief came for Messi & Co soon as the strike was deemed off-side.
Argentina survived anxious moments even after that as Brazil came close to equalising.
But goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who had made his international debut only this year and impressed in the semi-finals against Colombia saving three penalty kicks in the shoot-out to help his team enter the final, once again proved to be the hero.
In the 57th minute, Richarlison had an opportunity to draw level from point-blank range.
However, Martínez was up to task as he blocked the shot.
In the 86th minute, the 28-year-old parried a strike from Gabi to keep the home side at bay.
A minute later though, Messi was on the prowl but just as luck has failed him in the previous finals – the 2007, 2015, 2016 Copa America as well as the 2014 World Cup — this time too he couldn’t get past goalkeeper Ederson.
It appeared to be an easy an chance by his standard but the 34-year-old messed it up against an approaching Ederson.
But that didn’t cost anything to Argentina since minutes later, when the whistle blew, the entire Albiceleste jumped on a teary-eyed Messi.
Six years ago, after losing the final of Copa final to Chile in penalties, he wept even as the bus reached the team hotel. A year later, in the 2016 Copa final, he just couldn’t take any further criticism and decided to retire only to come back to fulfil his dream and fill the lacuna five years later.
The criticism from Argentina may have been harsh but understandable.
The last time Argentina had won a major international trophy — the Copa America itself — was way back in 1993 when Messi was just six and Di Maria was only five. And the last time Albiceleste had scored in the Copa final, was in 2004.