Messi could end GOAT debate forever with Copa America victory
Of the 53 players that Brazil and Argentina called up between them for the 2021 Copa America, there is just one survivor from the last time that South America's two footballing titans last met in a major final.
Lionel Messi celebrated his 20th birthday days before the Albiceleste kicked off their 2007 Copa campaign in Venezuela, and played in every game as Alfio Basile's star-studded side fought to the deciding match, chipping in with goals in both the quarter and semi-finals to raise hopes that the crown was in reach.
But Brazil had other ideas. Coach Dunga had effectively picked a reserve side for the continental championship, leaving the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Kaka at home in favour of the more earthly talents of Vagner Love and Julio Baptista as well as a smattering of young hopefuls, such as Robinho and Dani Alves, who were destined for greater things.
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Despite counting on the talents of young Leo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Hernan Crespo, Pablo Aimar and Carlos Tevez to name just a few, however, Argentina saw their Copa campaign destroyed in spectacular fashion.
Having cruised through the tournament with five consecutive wins, they were blown away by the unfancied Brazilians 3-0 in Maracaibo – the first of four major finals Messi has lost in international colours, a run nobody could have imagined 14 years ago.
It is a testament to the captain's longevity and incredible consistency that he remains at the top of his game, the inspiration for his team and, with four goals and five assists to date, the best player by a distance at this Copa.
In spite of Argentina starting as the outside bet against a dominant Brazil team, the 34-year-old believes this could finally be the year.
“We have achieved the first objective, which was to play the final, and every game,” the star signalled to reporters after Lionel Scaloni's men took down Colombia in Tuesday's semi-final, with Emiliano Martinez saving three penalties in the shoot-out to become an instant national hero.
“Last Copa the team showed it was strong, we left a good image, and I think we will do it again this time.
“I am more hopeful than ever because we are in another final. I always say that winning a title with the national team is my biggest wish.”
To do so Messi will not just have to take down Brazil, unbeaten in South American competition for five years and the runaway favourites to defend their Copa America title, but do so on the nation's most hallowed football soil. Rio de Janeiro's Estadio Maracana, the venue for Saturday's final, has special historical significance for the hosts.
While its usual tenants Flamengo were loath to share the stadium for this hastily reorganised competition due to their Serie A commitments, there was never any doubt that the final would be the only game to take place there in the 2021 Copa. Even without fans, it carries an aura few other major sporting venues can hope to match.
But for opponents, too, this football cathedral can also prove inspirational. Ever since Uruguay bested Brazil in the half-finished stadium in the 1950 World Cup, every visiting club and nation has received a little extra motivation to inflict their own Maracanazo.
Messi's own experience of the Maracana, of course, ended with him staring at the World Cup from afar as Germany celebrated victory in 2014. Two years ago, he exploded with rage in Belo Horizonte as Tite's men proved too strong and advanced to the Copa final at their rivals' expense.
Whether or not this latest attempt will end in similar fashion depends on how Argentina, who throughout the last month have proved more adept at beginning rather than finishing matches on the right foot, manage the full 90 minutes against an opponent who will pose a constant threat to Martinez.
The potential return of Cristian Romero in particular could prove crucial to bolster a defence which creaked in the knockout matches with Ecuador and Colombia.
Ultimately, though, much of their fortunes lie on Leo's shoulders. He is more fired up than perhaps ever before on the international stage, playing most of Tuesday's second half with blood filling his sock courtesy of a savage and wholly unpunished kick from Colombia's Frank Fabra that raked across his ankle.
Even with that incessant, often violent attention from markers, moreover – Leo was fouled on no fewer than five occasions, more than anyone else on the field - he nevertheless proved a constant threat, completing nine dribbles and creating six chances for his team, including that assist to Lautaro Martinez.
As so often occurs, Messi ultimately had the final word, converting his penalty with consummate ease and motivating every team-mate who stepped up to the spot as well as the marvellous Emi Martinez, who drove Colombia's takers to distraction with his now-infamous heckling from between the posts.
Messi himself was uncharacteristically mouthy when former Barcelona team-mate Yerry Mina had his effort saved by the Aston Villa man, bellowing "Dance now!" over and over as Mina tried to compose himself after missing.
Mina had converted in the shootout against Uruguay earlier in the week and danced a jig on the spot in celebration. There would be no repeat performance against Argentina.
There is one more factor which is working in Messi's favour. For once in Argentina colours, the pressure to bring home the trophy seems to be off, with the Albiceleste happy with their underdog status and growing as a team under Scaloni with every match that passes.
If they can bring the joy and defiance which accompanied Tuesday's win to the final, and iron out those defensive jitters, Brazil will not have things all their own way despite their superiority on paper.
Messi's own Maracanazo, then, cannot be ruled out and, should he succeed in bringing back the Copa America against such a formidable opponent, any doubts over his status as the greatest footballer in history, if any do indeed still exist, could be cast aside for good.