It has been close to three decades since Argentina lifted a major trophy. The Albicelesti, as they are affectionately called have been perennials in underachievement ever since. The most enduring memory of them celebrating a title win is what Diego Maradona, Jorge Burruchaga and others put up in the Azteca Stadium after beating then West Germany in the Mexico 1986 World Cup final.
In the book of ironies, the story of Argentina and silverware must feature in the early pages. After winning the 1991 Copa America in Chile, they defended their title by beating Mexico to win the next edition in Ecuador in ’93. Then the barreness of the senior national team kicked off. The turn of the millennium saw them dominate the FIFA U-20 World Cup; they hosted and won the 2001 edition famously beating Ghana in the final. They repeated the dose against Nigeria in 2005 in The Netherlands and rounded up the decade beating Czech Republic in Canada in 2007.
This run of success availed a pool of world beating youngsters. Across those tournaments, Argentina outdoored Javier Saviola, Maxi Rodriguez, Fabricio Coloccini, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Fernando Gago, Pablo Zabaleta, Andres D’Alessandro, Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria, etc. Already established stars included Roberto Ayala, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, Javier Zanetti, Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme, Hernan Crespo, etc.
A right equilibrium struck between experience and youth would have envisaged a future of everything but failure. Great managers came and left as one of football’s favourite countries strived futilely to break the jinx. They made it to the final of the Copa at Peru 2004 only to lose to Brazil on penalty shootouts, in one of the most famous games the two giants have played. That last gasp Adriano half volley to equalize 2-2 will defy forgetfulness.
The two would meet again in Caracas, Venezuela, in the final of the 2007 Copa. Against expectation, a weakened Brazil run riot, winning 3-0 against a really strong Albicelesti, with a certain young Messi. On home soil in 2011, they lost to eventual champions Uruguay only in the quarterfinals on penalty shootouts. By so doing, Uruguay became the all-time most successful side in the Copa, winning 15 titles as compared to Argentina’s 14.
Chile hosted and won the 2015 edition, beating Messi and Argentina in the final on shootouts. Then, CONMEBOL, South America’s football governing body decided to give the world’s oldest international football tournament a befitting centenary anniversary gift. Haven started in 1916, a special tourney was organized and staged in the USA in 2016 to mark the milestone. Again, Chile prevailed over Argentina on shootouts to win the title, with Messi skying his kick.
Brazil hosted and won in 2019, beating Argentina in the semifinals without Neymar, who was on the treatment table. Following a boardroom decision in 2017, CONMEBOL decided to, after the 2019 edition, roll out the tournament in even years and no longer odd years. Hence, 2020 was billed to start this series but had to delay because of Covid. Argentina and Colombia were to co-host but due to Covid concerns and civil unrests respectively, both were stripped of hosting rights.
Then came Brazil, ironically one of the hardest hit countries in the world, by Covid. Initial player disagreement and public discontent ultimately could not push away the Copa. So here we are. Brazil have made it to the final and so have Argentina. Yet again it is a bookmakers’ final, affording Messi possibly his last real chance of winning a major international trophy. Next year’s World Cup is a much bigger ask for various reasons.
After four goals and five assists, the diminutive genius, many argue, has a personal score to settle once and for all; win Argentina a title. This, they believe will earn him a spot amongst certain legends. For me though, that elusive title does not change his majestic left foot. It remains the lethal weapon that is worth its weight in gold. It is the most devastating body part the sporting world has known in the past decade and over.
He and Argentina have Brazil, defending champions, stand between them and glory. Brazil are eyeing a tenth title and Neymar’s first. They were on a rosy ride until Peru gave them reality check in the semis. Argentina needed shootouts to go past Colombia. The stage then, is set for the biggest international football rivalry on the planet. Will Argentina suffer another miscarriage? Is it Messi’s time? Can they finally exorcise the ghosts of yesteryear in enemy territory? An empty Maracanā decides.