[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rgentina’s 22-year trophy drought continued last night as Gerardo Martino’s men were beaten agonisingly on penalties in the final of the Copa America by competition hosts Chile.
The spot-kick defeat will hurt all involved with the Albiceleste, but Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano will feel the loss acutely given that it is the third time in international football that they have fallen at the final hurdle.
The Barcelona pair were also in Argentina’s 2007 Copa America side that was beaten 3-0 by Brazil in the final, while suffering extra-time torment at the hands of Mario Götze and Germany at last year’s World Cup.
For Messi, it is clear that the lack of success with his nation cuts to his core.
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner was clearly devastated after Alexis Sánchez converted the telling spot kick, with most of the Argentine public looking to their captain to inspire the nation to glory.
Although Messi will be hurting due to the team’s failure and will not think from an individual perspective, there is no doubting that his lack of silverware at national level is the only blot on his copybook.
The 28-year-old has consistently delivered for Barcelona, winning trophies and breaking records on a perennial basis, with his form in 2015 as the Blaugrana captured a momentous treble simply stunning.
He is in line to potentially win a fifth Ballon d’Or, while few would argue that he is the best player in world football currently.
The debate over who the best player to ever play the sport is cannot be decisively answered and will continue long after Messi has hung up his boots.
The Argentine will be held by most in the same regard as illustrious countryman Diego Maradona, Pelé and Johan Cruyff – even if he never kicks another ball.
However, the now retired greats have the advantage over Messi in the fact that they delivered on the biggest stage – in the World Cup and for their national teams.
Maradona will continue to be Argentina’s favourite son following his heroics to lead the Albiceleste to the 1986 World Cup until Messi can do likewise.
Where Maradona scored great individual goals and almost single-handedly led the team to success in 1986, Messi again has not shown his best form for the South American nation.
Taking 2007 out of the equation, where Argentina were thoroughly beaten, if Messi and his country had won the World Cup last summer and the Copa America this year, would his status in selecting the best ever be altered?
The 28-year-old was named as player of the tournament in Brazil last year and has been central to Argentina’s progression through the stages in Chile this time round, admittedly without scoring from open play himself.
Sport at the elite level is decided by the finest of margins, with so many variables contributing to the eventual winners and losers.
In Messi’s case, the unfortunate correlation between Gonzalo Higuaín and defeat at the final hurdle is present.
The Napoli forward was the man who missed a penalty in the shootout in Santiago, while also spurning a gilt-edged chance in injury time that could have won the competition for Argentina.
Going back 12 months and it was again Higuaín who had the Albiceleste’s best chance to score against Germany, as he raced through on goal after a rare defensive error from the eventual victors.
The former Real Madrid man, faced by the imposing presence of Manuel Neuer, dragged his shot wide from the edge of the box – and the rest is history.
Plenty of people have scapegoated Higuaín for Argentina’s failures again, which is entirely unfair.
However, had those small margins been in the Albiceleste’s favour on both occasions, Messi would now have World Cup and Copa America triumphs to his name.
In my humble opinion, Messi is the best that has ever played football, but for his exploits in Blaugrana; winning La Liga titles and Champions Leagues through his brilliance.
That said, last summer in Brazil it was Maradona’s name, not Messi’s, that the travelling Argentine support sang vociferously.
This year’s Copa America is now consigned to the history books and will be remembered as Chile’s proudest day, while Messi and Argentina have to suffer the heartache of defeat.
In the future, after Messi has retired from the game and the next generation of Argentine stars emerge, it will be interesting to see whether Maradona’s name is still exalted by the Albiceleste fans or his predecessor is seen as king.
No-one, now or then, will be chanting Gonzalo Higuaín’s name unfortunately.
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