The Copa America ended on Saturday night with glory for Lionel Messi and Argentina, after the legendary forward finally won his first major title at the senior level after nine losing efforts. What will we take away from South America’s flagship tournament after so much turmoil and uncertainty around who would host? (Brazil stepped in late after a surge in coronavirus cases made it too difficult for Argentina and Colombia to fulfill the honors.)
ESPN’s Tim Vickery recaps the biggest talking points and reflections from the competition.
Messi’s moment will change how the tournament is remembered
Thirteen years ago, it was Angel Di Maria who raced away to score the only goal against Nigeria that gave Argentina the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. On Saturday night at the Maracana in Rio, the same player did it again, bringing to an end his country’s 28-year wait for a title at the senior level. But part of the success of the Di Maria story is his willingness to be part of the supporting cast. Saturday was, of course, Lionel Messi’s moment, which will certainly have a huge effect on the way that history looks back at the 47th version of the world’s oldest continental tournament.
A Brazil triumph would have been the same old story: the hosts maintaining their recent superiority over all their continental rivals, retaining the trophy and keeping up their record of winning every Copa on home soil.
The lack of news on the pitch would surely have resulted in more space being awarded to all the pre-tournament controversy, from the late switch of host nation and games going ahead while the COVID-19 death toll kept rising, down to the clumsy and chaotic last-minute decision to have a few thousand supporters in the stadium for the final. Little of this will be forgotten, but the fact that Messi (at 34) now has his first international title is the kind of dramatic development that dominates headlines and memories.
All those bar-room discussions about the identity of the best player of all-time now need readjustment. The heavy artillery against Messi — that he’s never “done it” for Argentina — has now been silenced, too. And it’s not just the enduring image of Argentina’s captain holding up the trophy, but the level of his performances throughout the competition.
Messi was not man of the match in the final, an honour that probably belongs to Rodrigo De Paul — with Di Maria also in the running — but Messi was undoubtedly the player of the tournament. Of all the 12 goals that Argentina scored in the Copa America, the last was the only one in which he was not involved.
South American pitches falling behind
Much of the Maracana pitch was specifically relaid for the final and appeared to hold up reasonably well. The same could not be said of the other playing surfaces, with the worst grade going to the Estadio Olimpico Nilton Santos across town in Rio de Janeiro. Argentina complained about it after their first match, and Brazil were in some despair about having to play both their quarterfinal and semifinal on a pitch that caused the ball to “hop” about like a mad frog.
The standard of the pitches generally was far from satisfactory and while there an obvious excuse — Brazil stepped in at the last moment without any opportunity to make the necessary improvements — this explanation should be swatted away with the contempt it deserves for two reasons.
First, much the same was heard about the pitches for the 2019 Copa, which Brazil did have time to prepare for. Second — and this is the key point — these are the pitches on which Brazilian football is normally played. This is not a peripheral point to make, and it gets to the heart of the current imbalance between the state of the game on both sides of the Atlantic.
The rapid development of western European football is not only down to signing the best players from South America and the rest of the planet. Europe is also producing talent and playing a fast paced, technically accomplished brand of the game that’s dependent on the excellence of the playing surface.
South America is falling behind. In Brazil’s case, this is not just a financial question — think of the fortune that was spent on building stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, even though maintaining them isn’t nearly as noteworthy. Rather, the Brazilian calendar makes it hard: there are so many games and little time for a break, but that doesn’t obscure how not enough thought is being given to the pitches, and the consequences have become clear. It perhaps helps explain why a country the size of Brazil cannot come up with a player of the quality of Kevin De Bruyne in recent years.
And if Brazilian football, with its size and resources, cannot do it, what hope is there for the rest of South America?
Next stop: the World Cup
The COVID-19 pandemic restricted international football in South America last year to just four rounds of World Cup qualifiers last year, but they’ll make up for lost time with a punishing schedule in 2021. There are another 12 rounds to be slotted in before the end of next March and at the moment, it’s not entirely clear how this will be achieved, even with the creation of an extra FIFA date in late-January.
Yet the extra time that national team coaches had had with their players during the Copa America ought to be beneficial to that grueling qualification. Options and depth have been explored, new players have broken through. Chile, for example, are delighted with the discovery of English-born forward Ben Brereton, and Peru are at least as happy with their Italian-born striker, Gianluca Lapadula. Left out of the early games, Colombian winger Luis Diaz emerged with such brilliance that he undoubtedly became one of the players of the competition.
As ever, tournament football comes at a fast pace and heroes emerge over the course of a month. Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez certainly fits that bill.
It is some time since Argentina have been able to field a top-tier goalkeeper. After Russia 2018, coach Lionel Scaloni looked at eight keepers; Martinez was the eighth to get a look, but the Aston Villa shot-stopper is surely here to stay. He had an exceptional Copa and will fill Argentina with hope that, with an improved defence and one last dance for Messi and Di Maria, glory at Qatar 2022 might not be an impossible dream.
For Brazil, much will depend on how coach Tite reacts to the defeat in the final. Brazil are 100% perfect so far in World Cup qualification, and there’s no need to panic after losing at the Maracana on Saturday. But critics will be primed and the atmosphere will quickly become more turbulent if results slide; until, at least, Tite can consolidate Lucas Paqueta in the XI, improve the circulation of the ball in midfield and keep the team calmer under pressure.
With two goals conceded in five games and, on paper, plenty of firepower, Uruguay have shown that they can be competitive. Third-place Colombia have potential, but will surely need to mend the relationship with playmaker James Rodriguez, who was left out of the Copa squad, on the road to Qatar. And even without a win, Ecuador showed that they have an interesting young generation. Lying third in World Cup qualification, they hope that the likes of Moises Caicedo and Gonzalo Plata can carry them to Qatar, and put up a fight once they arrive.
With just under a year-and-a-half to go, one of the legacies of this strange and controversial Copa is that it has whetted the appetite for the next World Cup.