Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Can Lionel Messi finally beat Copa America jinx and guide Argentina to title?

The Barcelona forward is arguably the greatest player of all time, but his four previous Copa Americas ended in heartbreak, including losing the last two finals

Argentina forward Lionel Messi, centre, will turn 32 during the upcoming 2019 Copa America in Brazil. EPA
Argentina forward Lionel Messi, centre, will turn 32 during the upcoming 2019 Copa America in Brazil. EPA

Once more into the house of pain that is the Copa America for Lionel Messi. Probably the greatest footballer of his generation, and certainly the finest from his continent, makes his fifth attempt at it over the next three weeks. Given he will turn 32 during the tournament, Messi must wonder if it will be his last.

For Argentinians, the fact of Messi leading the country in Brazil at all is a sort of bonus. After the Copa America Centenario in the United States three summers ago, something seemed to have broken. After a final that ended with Argentina beaten on penalties, Messi announced he would be retiring from internationals. “I think it is best for everyone,” he said, prompting a noisy public - and successful - campaign to persuade him that he was wrong to imagine he knew what was best for everyone.

An Argentina without Messi is no good for Fifa, nor for Conmebol, the South American game’s governing body, and there is palpable relief among the patrons of the 2019 edition that, deprived of Neymar because of injury, this Copa still has as its figurehead the five-time winner of the Ballon d’Or. And it might just be good for Messi too. It could be the vehicle to deliver Messi his sixth Ballon d'Or, if he can break the apparent curse the tournament has haunted him with for the last 12 years.

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Messi warms up for 2019 Copa America with rout of Nicaragua - in pictures

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The story of Messi and the Copa began in 2007, the summer he turned 20 and a year after he had won his first Champions League title at Barcelona. He had by then experienced, with Argentina, the first of many disappointments via spot-kick, elimination at the quarter-final stage of a World Cup. But the 2007 Copa seemed to be bending his way: It featured Argentina waltzing to the final with 16 goals in their first five matches, Messi’s delicate chip against Mexico in the semi the best of them. Come the final, though, Argentina would be crushed, beaten 3-0 by Brazil.

By the 2011 Copa, expectation had grown again. Messi had won two Ballon d’Ors and was heading for a third on the trot. His country were hosting the South American showpiece. They had removed Diego Maradona as manager after an anarchic period in charge and had, in Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Angel Di Maria, a breadth of attacking talent perhaps unmatched in international football. What could go wrong? Plenty. They lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals, on penalties.

And so a pattern was set, and brutally repeated in the replica Copa finals of 2015, in Chile, and in 2016 in the bespoke Centenary edition of the tournament. Argentina, losing finalists at the 2014 World Cup, reached the final of the Copa two years running; both times Messi finished the captain of the runners-up, after losses on penalties to Chile. “After four finals,” he said, “not to be champion hurts.”

This time around, expectations are genuinely muted. In part that’s because Brazil are hosts and favourites. In part it’s because of the long history of failure: Argentina have not won a senior men’s tournament since 1993, so the blank record has been with them twice as long as Messi has been part of the team. In part it’s because only 12 months ago, a disastrous World Cup campaign - four games, one win, several mutinies - was fracturing morale once again, and leading to the dismissal of the seventh different manager in 10 years.

The new boss, on a short contract, is the former international defender, Lionel Scaloni, who reached an agreement with Messi that the player could take some time off earlier in the season, to focus solely on his work with Barcelona, and return to Argentina duty in the spring. His club appreciated it, to the tune of 51 goals across competitions and yet more evidence that Barca’s reliance on Messi is as needy as Argentina’s.

Scaloni has no radical ideas about who might best partner his captain to maximise his effectiveness, and, even if he did, Messi’s approval would be sought. The likelihood is that two old allies, Aguero and Di Maria, will start alongside the captain for Saturday’s opening fixture against Colombia. Aguero has just won a league title with Manchester City, Di Maria the same with Paris Saint-Germain and Messi likewise with Barcelona. "The Magic Trio", they are being dubbed at home. The first conjuring trick required of them is to forget what previous Copas have inflicted on them.

Updated: June 13, 2019 03:35 PM

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