This was to have been the match that sealed Lionel Messi’s legacy.
The one that silenced the doubters, that killed off the question mark hanging over his greatness, that gave him his place in the pantheon next to Diego Maradona and showed he could achieve the same success with Argentina that has become so staggeringly routine at club level. Instead, it became The Night Messi Missed.
Goalless after 120 minutes, a game that during the first half looked on course to be decided by over-zealous officiating instead had to be settled by penalties. This wasn’t the first time the stomach-churning lottery of spot kicks has been needed to separate Argentina and Chile, of course. Last year, it was the heroics of Claudio Bravo and Alexis Sánchez’s ice-cool Panenka that clinched the Copa América for La Roja.
This time, with Chile shooting first, a save by Sergio Romero to thwart Arturo Vidal handed Argentina the early advantage. Messi stepped forward. After a game in which he’d been consistently excellent but struggled to apply the finishing touch, destiny surely awaited. He appeared calm. There were no deep breaths, no tics to betray nerves. The run-up was clinical, short and confident. But the shot was blasted high over the bar. High over the bar, and well into the stands. Once again at an international tournament, Messi had missed. The agony was written all over his face.
What followed from there seemed almost inevitable, given the way everything about this match had been set up as the final, coronating chapter in the saga of young Leo: the two sides traded successful spot kicks, then Bravo – that man again – saved Lucas Biglia’s effort. Francisco Silva, brought on late during extra-time for Sánchez, proved a perfect proxy for the hero of the 2015 shootout. He shot hard; Romero dived the wrong way; the Copa was Chile’s once again.
As jubilation broke out on the Chilean bench and among the swatch of red behind the goal, Messi slumped to the ground, stunned. After the bitter consolation, in a losing cause, of the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot, here again we witnessed the cruel spectacle of this generation’s greatest player stumbling with the finish line in sight. But take nothing away from Chile; at times they have been exceptional in this tournament, no more so than when thrashing a highly fancied Mexico side 7-0 in the quarter-finals. If the GOAT is to be a loser, would that it be to a team of Chile’s quality.
On a perfect summer’s night, under clear skies and with the wind blowing fair and mineral off the industrial lagoons of New Jersey, a boisterous but friendly crowd took their seats early and the stadium was full by the time play got under way. But if the fans were well behaved, the players soon revealed themselves to be anything but. The spectators had come expecting a feast of attacking football – the high press and relentless movement of Chile versus the effortless mastery of Messi and friends. When these two teams met in the group stages, they tore at each other with vicious intensity from the opening minute, but the selections here hinted, perhaps, at a more tempered, cautious encounter.
Chile were unchanged from their comfortable victory over Colombia in the semis, but Tata Martino, perhaps mindful that La Roja have vaulted onto a new plane of attacking intensity as the tournament has progressed, made room for Lucas Biglia next to Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega – a more defensive-minded midfield trio than we’ve seen from the Albiceleste in this tournament. Ángel Di María, meanwhile, returned and slotted into the place left behind after Ezequiel Lavezzi’s injury during the semi-final victory over the US.
We knew it would be intense, but what we got for the first 45 minutes was something closer to straightforward violence. A wild lunge from Marcelo Diaz on Messi at the quarter-hour mark set the tone, and from there the teams went at each other with brutal, percussive, at times reckless physicality. Even when they weren’t flying into challenges, players seemed intent on causing themselves harm: Chile’s street warrior Sánchez, darting down the left flank with customary all-or-nothing intensity, rolled awkwardly on his ankle within the first five minutes, while Gary Medel had a particularly unfortunate encounter with the left upright on 20 minutes after racing to clear a goalbound Gonzalo Higuain chip.
Moments of quality were rare, and by the half-hour mark, with seemingly every challenge threatening to boil over into a major diplomatic incident, referee Heber Lopes appeared to be on the verge of losing control. But Lopes has shown himself to be unafraid to reach into his pocket this tournament, and he soon had the opportunity to burnish his growing reputation as world football’s enforcer-in-chief. Diaz appeared to do little more than get beaten for pace when the masterly Messi va-voomed past him on the edge of the area, but the resulting collision justified a second yellow, in Lopes’s eyes, and Chile found themselves down to 10 men. Diaz’s first booking was uncontroversial, but this felt harsh.
A red card is always a shame but doubly so when it comes less than half an hour into a showpiece final between two of the world’s most thrilling attacking ensembles. Perhaps Lopes rued the decision to hand Diaz a second yellow because a few minutes later, he evened things up by sending Marcos Rojo off for a challenge on Vidal. The Argentinian defender appeared to gather the ball as he scythed through Vidal, though things looked much worse when viewed at normal speed. Either way, it was another harsh decision.
The sniping, the elbowing, the arguing all continued once the teams returned for the second half. Neither side appeared able to get into rhythm; passes went astray, play became congealed around the centre circle, and the game’s attacking aristocrats struggled to rise above the fray. For a brief period it seemed Nicolas Otamendi would emerge as the game’s dominant figure. Gradually, however, Chile began to assert their control through the middle of the park; having one less Argentinian defender to deal with opened the channels up and it wasn’t long before the front triangle of Sánchez, Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz was working its magic.
Argentina, meanwhile, saw their output dwindle to a handful of forward darts by Messi and the occasional remonstration with Lopes for going longer than 10 minutes without producing a straight red. Martino hauled off the largely ineffectual Di María and replaced Higuain, who had spurned a couple of decent half-chances around the hour mark, with Sergio Agüero – not a bad option to have off the bench. The game began to open up; Vargas shot straight at Romero from a tight angle after a bobbing, jagging run down the right, while Agüero, put through clean on goal after Messi drew three defenders, snatched a golden late chance horribly wide. Messi appeared frustrated; this was not the way his night was supposed to go. But nothing he tried was working; a long-range shot as the clocked ticked down to extra time summed it all up, the maestro well off target with the final ball after a typically magnetic 50-yard run. Was he trying too hard?
Both sets of players appeared physically destroyed as the game headed to extra time, but there was no let-up in the intensity once they reconvened on the pitch. If anything, the game got better. First Vargas headed weakly at Romero, then Claudio Bravo pulled off a superb, balletic, swan-diving save to push a looping header from Agüero over the bar. Chile came back at Argentina, Argentina came back at Chile. At one moment Argentina looked the side more likely to score, the next they were a nervous defensive wreck. There was no notion of playing for the shootout, no question of leaving the result to chance. After a turgid, ugly first half, suddenly we had the game we’d wanted all along.
There was just one thing missing: a goal. Thirty breathless, desperate minutes later, it came down to penalties. Chile, who looked ragged and there for the taking in the final 10 minutes of extra-time, showed their nervelessness when it mattered most. Having been crowned champions of South America last year, they now take their place as the best team in the western hemisphere.
This article was written by Aaron Timms at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th June 2016 04.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010