At Long Last, Messi Has His Argentina Moment — Can We Declare Him The GOAT Now?

Lionel Messi is finally a champion with Argentina. In his fifth major final in his 10th major tournament, Messi led La Albiceleste to a major international trophy, beating Brazil 1-0 in the 2021 Copa América final on Saturday night at the Maracanã. 

Maybe that will shut the naysayers up after years of hearing “yeah, but” when discussing Messi as the greatest player of all time.

And you could see what it meant to him, his teammates and his country. 

Messi has won just about everything there is to win in the game of soccer — 10 LaLiga titles, four Champions League trophies, a World Cup Golden Ball and a record six Ballon d’Ors. The one thing that eluded him was a major trophy with Argentina. Messi won the U-20 World Cup in 2005 and the Olympics in 2008, but those are both youth competitions. 

That changed thanks to Ángel Di María’s 22nd-minute strike, taking advantage of a miscue from Renan Lodi to chip Ederson for the game’s only goal. 

Lionel Messi was undoubtedly the best player at the 2021 Copa América, finishing with four goals and five assists, both tops in the competition. This was his tournament — he won the Golden Boot and was named Best Player — and now Messi has checked every box on his résumé to be named the greatest men’s footballer of all time.

The list of all-time greats now unmistakably reads Messi, Pelé, Diego Maradona and Cristiano Ronaldo. You can argue the order, but there can no longer be any complaint about Messi’s place in the pantheon of greats. (Personally, I’d go Messi, Ronaldo, Pelé, Maradona.) 

Maybe it was the death of Maradona last fall that inspired him or took a little pressure off, or maybe it was maturity, but Messi finally was the player his country always wanted him to be this summer.

Argentina saw a different Messi in this Copa América. Now 34, Messi finally appeared comfortable as a leader, inspiring his teammates with both his deeds and his words. He would drive at defenses with unrelenting desire then turn around and encourage his teammates to follow his lead. So rousing has Messi been that many Brazilians were moved to root for Argentina in the final, irking Neymar in the process

Messi’s biggest moment of the tournament came in the semifinals against Colombia. Influential throughout the 90 minutes, his fire carried Argentina in the shootout, epitomized by his taunting of Yerry Mina after he missed a penalty. 

On Saturday, Messi was occasionally guilty of being a bit selfish with the ball, but he was entirely unselfish defensively, putting in more backtracking than he usually displays with Barcelona. At one point, the No. 10 scythed through Lucas Paquetá with a sliding tackle to win the ball back. 

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Though Messi wasn’t able to provide a goal or assist in the final, Argentina still managed to win through unflinching defense while still looking dangerous on the attack. He had one moment in the 88th minute to finish the game off but stumbled on the final touch facing Ederson one-on-one.

The game was physical and feisty — 41 fouls called in total — but Messi never backed down. As the match wore on, Brazil threw on attackers while Argentina replaced its offensive players with defenders — all but Messi, who continued battling after playing every minute of the tournament. 

To be clear, it wasn’t just Messi who won this tournament for Argentina, the nation’s first since 1993. The defense was superb, led by Emiliano Martinez in goal, who became a legend in the semifinal shootout against Colombia. On Saturday, he came up with two big saves to record his third clean sheet of the competition. 

On the other side of the field, Neymar will have to wait a little longer for a major senior international title with Brazil (he was out injured when Brazil won the last Copa América in 2019 and no one really cares too much about the Confederations Cup). 

Like Messi, Neymar had a brilliant tournament, with two goals and three assists. He was at his crafty best, dazzling in a way only a Brazilian can.

But Neymar fell short in the final, unable to provide that one moment to counter Di María’s goal. He said he wanted Argentina in the final, got upset when Brazil fans said they wanted Messi to win a title and ends his summer with nothing but a silver medal and ripped shorts.

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After the final whistle, Neymar broke down in tears, showing just how much he wanted that title. (Based on this tournament, Brazil will likely be the favorite at the 2022 World Cup, so Neymar will likely have another shot at glory.)

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Saturday night, the trophy belonged to Messi and Argentina — and Messi is the undisputed GOAT.

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