It’s hard to believe Argentina are trophyless in the 21st century.
You have to go back to 1993 for the last time La Albiceleste tasted glory. Alfio Basile’s men on that occasion at the Estadio Monumental, in Ecuador’s second largest city Guayaquil, ran out 2-1 victors against Mexico to win a then-record 14th Copa América title.
Since then it’s been a litany of near misses. Such is their incredible status, a footballing powerhouse that continues to churn out high calibre players, they’ve reached four continental finals as well as finishing runners-up at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Five years on from that agonising defeat to Germany, they’re back in the Land of the Palms seeking redemption and ending a 26-year drought. Naturally, all eyes are on their skipper and world football’s numero uno player Lionel Messi.
Following his emergence in 2005 he, more than anyone, has been central to their efforts. Though it’s fair to say we’ve never consistently seen the Barcelona version of him. The why is a discussion for another day. But as he enters his fifth tournament it’s worth looking back on his Copa record.
2007 Copa América
Host country: Venezuela
Goals (assists): 2 (1)
Messi was no longer a teenage prodigy when the 2007 edition came around. Armed with 14 international caps and four goals under his belt, the 20-year-old started in Argentina’s opening two wins against USA (4-1) and Colombia (4-2) before making a cameo in their final group match with Paraguay (1-0).
Across those outings he’d contribute with a solitary assist (v USA) but the goals would come in the knockout phase. His first came in the 4-0 quarter-final win over Peru and the second, a stunning chip, against Mexico (3-0) in the semi-finals.
By now Argentina – fielding an irresistible front-three consisting of Juan Román Riquelme, Carlos Tévez and Messi with Juan Sebastián Verón, Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso in midfield – were 100% and faced eternal foes Brazil in the final but Messi, despite growing into the competition, wasn’t able to prevent them from being humbled 3-0.
Nonetheless this was a strong debut showing from the soon-to-be multi Ballon d’Or recipient.
2011 Copa América
Host country: Argentina
Goals (assists): 0 (3)
So much happened in the intervening four years. Messi went from being the ‘next big thing’ to becoming undisputedly the world’s best footballer. Pep Guardiola, who took charge of Barcelona in 2008, played a guiding role and now tournament hosts Argentina were looking to benefit which they unfortunately couldn’t manage under national icon Diego Maradona at the 2010 World Cup finals.
It never quite turned out to be the fairytale tournament many dreamt. Messi, irregardless of his newfound infamy and playing every single minute (starting as striker before ending up on the right flank), ended scoreless, albeit creating three goals, as Sergio Batista’s team crashed out in the quarter-finals: losing 5-4 on penalties – Tévez missing his spotkick – to eventual winners Uruguay.
2015 Copa América
Host country: Chile
Goals (assists): 1 (3)
An opportunity to put things right was how Messi saw the 2015 championship. His reputation as the world’s best remained intact even if the equally impressive Cristiano Ronaldo continued breathing down his neck. A year prior Barça’s number 10 came fingertips away from lifting Argentina’s third World Cup crown.
Messi, no longer just an inspirational figure, now wears the captains armband. Under his leadership they reached another final. Getting there wasn’t easy. An opening 2-2 draw with Paraguay, with Messi scoring his only tournament goal, was followed by narrow 1-0 wins over Uruguay and Jamaica.
The demons of four years prior were banished in the quarter-final stage when Argentina defeated Colombia 5-4 on penalties and that exorcism was followed by a 6-1 mauling of Paraguay in the semis where Messi – now established as a right-sided forward with freedom to roam – bagged a hat-trick of assists. But, once again they fell at the final hurdle, losing 4-1 on penalties to Chile led by future manager Jorge Sampaoli.
Copa América Centenario
Host country: United States
Goals (assists): 5 (4)
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced the United States would host Copa América’s centenary anniversary tournament. Once the debate subsided Argentina were again on a mission with Messi leading from the front. It proved to be his best yet with only Chilean striker Eduardo Vargas (6) outscoring him (5).
Having been rested for their opener, a 2-1 win over Chile, he’d announce himself with a hat-trick against Panama – in the space of 19 minutes Messi scored as many as in 16 previous games – and he wasn’t done.
Venezuela felt his wrath in the quarter-finals. A goal and two assists saw Gerardo Martino’s men claim a 4-1 win. It was the same contribution in their 4-0 semi-final win over USA, a game which saw him surpass legendary marksman Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time record goalscorer.
However they were struck by a case of déjà vu in the final against holders Chile, another loss on penalties, which proved too much for Messi who subsequently announced his international retirement before eventually reneging on that decision. With a sense of unfinished business he’ll be hoping fifth time’s a charm this summer.