RIO DE JANEIRO: Lionel Messi was fed up and hurting three years ago, on the losing side once again at the Copa America.
“For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can,” Messi said after Argentina’s penalty-shootout loss to Chile at the 2016 edition in the United States.
Three years later, the five-time world player of the year is back at South America’s biggest tournament, the guy Argentina is relying on once again to end their trophy drought in international football.
Now 31, Messi is still among the best players in the world. He is coming off another prolific season for Barcelona 51 goals in 50 matches in all competitions where he led the Spanish team to a fourth league title in five years.
Trophies at club level and personal awards just keep on coming for Messi. It’s on the international stage that he continues to fall short, meaning that for many especially in Argentina he still cannot compare to country’s other great player, Diego Maradona.
Argentina enter the Copa America in Brazil without a major international trophy at the senior level since 1993. That was the year they won the South American championship for the second straight edition and 14th time overall. Seven years before that, Argentina won the World Cup, mainly thanks to Maradona.
A quarter of a century without a big title is too long for such a football-crazy nation and it is weighing heavily on its players. Hence Messi’s emotional reaction after the 2016 final, when Argentina slumped a second straight shootout loss to Chile in the final.
When the tournament begins on Friday with Brazil playing Bolivia, the host nation will be the favourites but the absence of Neymar because of an ankle injury should provide Argentina with more optimism.
“We have the best player in the world, we will try to help him so he feels comfortable,” Argentina midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said of Messi. “But we are aware that Brazil is the favourite.”
Led by interim coach Lionel Scaloni, Argentina have many young players in their first international tournament. With Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Angel di Maria among the other attackers, the concerns again lie in the defence, where Argentina have been weak for some time.
If Messi can lead an Argentina team in transition to the title at the home of their greatest football rivals all that pain and anguish from previous misses at the Copa America and World Cup will likely disappear in an instant.
Even in a career as stellar as Messi’s, it will rank as one of the highlights.
Brazil should have been gearing up for another major home sporting spectacle with renewed optimism that star forward Neymar would help bring to an end a 12-year trophy drought.
But instead, the Selecao’s golden boy is dominating the build-up to a tournament he will miss due to injury — sustained in a 2-0 friendly victory over tournament invitees Qatar — for all the wrong reasons.
Neymar is embroiled in a rape scandal in which he has been accused of forcing himself on a model he met through social media in a hotel room in the French capital, where he plys his club trade for Paris St Germain.
It’s tarnished the festive atmosphere of South America’s footballing showpiece with an ugly affair that shows no sign of going away, despite Najila Trindade Mendes de Souza’s rapidly unraveling case.
Even so, Brazil’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand has been hampered by the Neymar rape soap opera.
After the debacle of Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final humbling at the hands of Germany in their home World Cup five years ago, and the fall out from the huge amount of money wasted on hosting both the global football showpiece and the Olympics in the space of two years, the country could have done without such a sordid affair.
Coach Tite insists that Brazil are still in fine fettle ahead of the tournament, which they haven’t won since 2007 when a team inspired by former Real Madrid and AC Milan forward Robinho outclassed Messi’s Argentina 3-0 in the final.
Tite admitted Neymar would be missed, saying “it’s a shame to not have one of the three best players in the world”.
But he said that rather than reflect on what they’re missing, “inside the squad we’re much more focussed on working hard, training well, preparing for matches, which has been our main focus.”
The Selecao’s last warm-up match was a 7-0 thrashing of 10-man Honduras in which Neymar’s absence certainly wasn’t felt, with his substitute David Neres scoring in the rout.
Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino also got in amongst the goals while Everton’s Richarlison provided several assists.
Two-time reigning champions Chile, who beat Argentina on penalties in 2015 and the one-off Centenario tournament in the United States in 2016, will have their work cut out to claim a hat-trick of titles.
Star forward Alexis Sanchez, known as the “Nino Maravilla” or wonder kid, at home has been in poor form for the last 18 months since moving to Manchester United from Arsenal, although Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal had a strong finish to the club season.
Chile are in a tough group ‘C’ alongside record 15-time winners Uruguay and guests Japan, competing for the second time after a poor showing in 1999 when they failed to win a match.