Football is strange.
Chile are Copa América champions for the second time in their history ... and for the second time in the space of 12 months. And they beat Argentina in successive finals without scoring a goal. It was enough to force Lionel Messi’s shocking resignation from the national team.
But while much of the focus will now turn to Messi’s decision to quit, we should acknowledge Chile’s achievements. Both finals showcased a team who imposed their pace on the game and deserved to win: the games in Santiago and in New Jersey were played exactly as Chile wanted – with hard-fought, extremely intense football with no open space and no chance for some of the world’s most dangerous strikers to play freely. More importantly, it’s Argentina who changed their style in order to face Chile, not the other way around. Argentina were still cautious despite the 2-1 win over Chile in the group stages.
For Argentina, finals of major tournaments are clearly something of a problem: they’ve now lost seven consecutive finals: at the Copa América in 2004, 2007, 2015 and 2016, the Confederations Cup in 1995 and 2005, and the World Cup in 2014. Messi alone, as he stated after the game, has lost four. Worse, Argentina’s last goal in a final was Pablo Aimar’s in 2005, and it was merely a consolation in a 4-1 loss, followed by a 0-3 to Brazil (2007), 0-1 to Germany (2014) and two 0-0s against Chile (2015 and 2016).
With Brazil’s ongoing crisis and Argentina’s mental block in crucial games, Chile have become South America’s most dangerous side. If Brazil (used to) have jogo bonito, and Uruguay revered their garra (strength), Chile have become super-predators, acting like a pack of wolves rather than solo hunters. What starts as a tactical battle eventually becomes a mental one. And Chile don’t know the meaning of fear.
This controlled chaos is all part of a golden generation for Chile: Claudio Bravo, Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal, Marcelo Díaz, Charles Aranguiz, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas, among others, have created a compact and solid team that can overcome the greatest difficulties. That was never more clear than in Sunday’s final, when Diaz was sent off and Chile quickly readapted without losing grip. Chileans are at their strongest when they click as a unit.
This renaissance started with Marcelo Bielsa as coach and continued with Claudio Borghi, Jorge Sampaoli and now Juan Antonio Pizzi – all of them Argentinians. Despite having a different philosophy from his predecessors, Pizzi understood that his squad had already embraced an identity and opted not to change it. It was Pizzi who adapted to his players, rather than the other way around. Substituting Vargas and Sanchez was a brave decision in Sunday’s final – but showed that the team always comes first, a rule that Chilean players revere and respect.
Argentina and their manager Gerardo Martino are a different story. He wanted to drastically change the team’s identity, but after two years in charge has failed, leaving the players in a limbo.
“We have tried to impose a football idea since we arrived, but for a final, I would leave the ‘how’ out if it’s good enough to win”, Martino said before the final, a hint of what was to come. Argentina never really took control of the game, despite playing part of the first half against a 10-man Chile.
Unlike Chile’s reaction to Diaz’s dismissal, Martino made a tactical blunder when Marcos Rojo was sent off. Javier Mascherano was deployed as centre-back, and Ramiro Funes Mori as left-back and Lucas Biglia, Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria, all three carrying injuries, were left alone in midfield, unable to cope with Chile’s superior fitness.
When Matias Kranevitter replaced Di Maria, it became clear that the plan was to contain, rather than to hurt the opposition. Once again, Messi was left alone, an errant saint who needed to perform a miracle and win the game alone.
Martino will now be heavily criticised over the many controversial decisions he’s taken, like calling up injured players (Javier Pastore didn’t play a minute), choosing an excess of central midfielders without having enough variation on the flanks, and sticking to his policy of a sole striker that meant Ezequiel Lavezzi was picked ahead of Juventus’s revelation, Paulo Dybala. But critics of Martino are not confined to places like Twitter: it’s the squad that has lost faith in him too. Messi’s resignation could provoke a chain reaction from others that are equally fed-up: Mascherano, Aguero, Higuain, Lavezzi and Di Maria could follow him.
During this summer’s Copa, the team’s atmosphere was constantly disrupted. Messi and his best friend, Agüero, had publicly expressed their discomfort over organisational issues at the Argentinian Football Association. Used to the smooth running of European football, players were angry over the treatment they received from the Argentinian FA in the United States: time wasted in airports and hotel lobbies, the absence of board members, a lack of budget to hire private planes or even take Argentinian youngsters to act as sparring partners. A rumour that the team could be forced out of the competition over a political brawl within the AFA, forced Messi to declare via Instagram: “Once again waiting in a plane to reach our destination. What a disaster the AFA are, my God!”
It was his most shocking quote ever – until the early hours of Monday morning, at least.
This article was written by Martin Mazur, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th June 2016 13.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010