Messi's moment as Argentina vs. Chile promises epic Copa America final
SANTIAGO, Chile -- One way or another, history will be made. Old taboos will fall, and with them, some long-held preconceptions.
Should Chile win the Copa America on Saturday, it would be the first time that they rise above the continental competition after 99 years and 37 attempts. On four occasions they finished as runners-up. As history would have it, the cruelest of those was 60 years ago. It came in this stadium against this opponent.
Back then, the Copa America was known as the South American championship and consisted of a round-robin group. The final match, then as now, pitted host Chile against Argentina. Both teams went in level on points. More than 65,000 fans filled the Estadio Nacional; many more were outside. A crush developed when the ticket offices opened late. Six supporters lost their lives, and a few dozen more were injured. The game went ahead on police advice, and Argentina, led by the legendary Angel Labruna, edged Chile 1-0.
Expectations are as high this time around as they were back then.
And should Argentina win the Copa America for the 15th time? Well, not only will they pull even with Uruguay as the nation that has won the most, but there also will be one fewer argument against Lionel Messi belonging among the greatest ever.
Until recently, the Barcelona striker has been dogged by the accusation that he performs better for the Catalans than for his own country. It's a tough argument to fathom when you consider that having just turned 28, he ranks second in all-time scoring for the Albiceleste (Gabriel Batistuta, 10 goals away, is within reach) and has the fifth-most caps (with 102; Javier Zanetti's 145 may or may not be unattainable, but he should at least retire in second place).
Still, the critics point to what separated him from the likes of Diego Maradona and Pelé: a lack of major silverware with his country. That, too, is surely crumbling given that Messi's Argentina took Germany to extra time in the World Cup final last summer. But if he delivers the Copa America on Saturday (and he's been outstanding in this tournament despite his lack of goals) he will have removed that burden from his shoulders as well.
That's the nature of international tournaments. You can prepare for them all you like, but so much has to do with what condition you're in when you get there.
Take Chile. Arturo Vidal had a slow start to the season at Juventus before finishing on a high. Alexis Sanchez had the reverse, and in some respects, he hasn't hit his usual heights in this tournament. Jorge Valdivia played a grand total of five competitive games for his club, Palmeiras, in 2015, which meant he arrived fresh and peaking at this Copa.
As for Messi, there was reason to believe that after a campaign in which he started 57 games for Barcelona and was substituted just once, he'd be somewhat battle-weary by the time he got to Chile. Not so; the array of lucid passes and sudden, streaky acceleration he displayed against Colombia and Paraguay suggest that he's as sharp now as he's been in a long time. That obviously wasn't the case at last summer's World Cup, where, after serving up that ludicrous assist for Angel Di Maria against Switzerland in the round of 16, he seemed to be present in body only.
The subtext involving the two managers, Gerardo "Tata" Martino and Jorge Sampaoli, is equally fascinating. They don't just share a nationality (both are Argentines); they are also united by the fact that they had to emigrate to find job opportunities.
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Martino enjoyed a successful topflight career as a player and coached some minor clubs in Argentina, but he really found his feet only abroad. He won three league titles at Libertad and a fourth at Cerro Porteno, making him a hero in a less glamorous league and giving him a chance at international management with Paraguay. In six years at the helm, he took them to the quarterfinal of the 2010 World Cup and 2007 Copa America, as well as the final of the 2011 Copa America. That's what put him back on the map, allowing him to get major club gigs at Newell's Old Boys and then Barcelona before taking the Argentina job.
Sampaoli's route was even more circuitous. He played his youth football for Newell's around the same time as Martino, two years his junior. A double leg break ended his dreams of professional football at age 19, and he devoted himself to coaching. He didn't just start at the bottom of the pyramid; he was in the basement.
He took charge of a variety of youth and amateur sides, one of the dozens of faceless young coaches who hope to make a name for themselves. Yet the call never came, so he emigrated, leaving Argentina in 2002 and having spells in Peru, Ecuador and Chile, winning plaudits for his aggressive, high-energy style more than his results.
Eventually, Sampaoli landed at Universidad de Chile in December 2010, and even that was because Diego Simeone pulled out of the job at the last minute. The rest is history. Sampaoli's version of "La U" dominated the league and won the Copa Sudamericana. He moved up to the national side and drew rave reviews at the World Cup, beating Spain in the group stage and losing to Brazil only on penalty kicks after nearly knocking out the hosts when Mauricio Pinilla's finish crashed against the woodwork.
In other words, these are two coaches who came up the hard way. Nothing came easily for them, and it's the sort of origin story that engenders respect from the playing squad.
Both men have applied important tweaks to their national sides in this tournament. Messi is neither a striker nor a false nine under Martino. He's a real 10, as he showed against Peru with devastating consequences. Why mess with a successful formula? Because Martino understood that what works at Barca won't necessarily work with Argentina. Sergio Aguero isn't Luis Suarez, Angel Di Maria isn't Neymar and Javier Pastore certainly isn't Andres Iniesta. This set-up, with Messi coming inside to support and interchange with Pastore, has benefited both the creation in midfield and the movement up front.
Sampaoli has also evolved. What was once a Marcelo Bielsa-esque, all-over-the-pitch press in his "La U" days is now somewhat more studied. It has to be when you're carrying a guy like Valdivia in the hole: His moments of magic are worth having every day of the week, but equally, you can't ask him to run himself into the ground. The back four, as opposed to the futuristic 3-3-1-3 scheme of "La U," is also a nod to greater pragmatism aimed at ensuring his better players get into the side: When you coach a nation, you don't have the luxury of buying players who fit your scheme.
It's enough to make you wonder whether either man will spring a surprise in the final. Will Sampaoli be tempted to conjure up something special to counter the times that Messi and Pastore team up inside? Will Martino revisit the build-up from the back given Chile's high press?
Whatever the case, we will see history made on Saturday. And we'll enjoy the privilege of seeing one of the greatest footballers ever in full pomp and one of the most innovative coaches in the world game trying to stop him.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.