The moment Lionel Messi lifted the trophy after Argentina beat Brazil in the final of the Copa América on 10 July was a landmark in football history, almost as significant as Pelé’s breaking all records to win his third World Cup with Brazil in 1970.
Messi had won every honour available at individual and club level but had never won a trophy with Argentina, whose last major success was at the Copa América in 1993. The drought was distressing for Argentina but worse for Messi. His rivals for the unwinnable but much coveted title of ‘greatest player of all time’ all inspired their national teams to new heights. Messi, a giant in Barcelona’s blaugrana, often seemed to shrink when wearing the blue and white Argentina shirt. In four World Cups he has reached the final once, in 2014, losing to Germany 1-0. Before this year he had played in three Copa América finals and lost all three. That may say more about his team mates’ shortcomings than his own but next to Pelé or Diego Maradona – the two men long considered the greatest – Messi’s international column was blank.
Football is a team game and the top players need to do more than rise to the occasion themselves. If they cannot elevate their team mates as well they cannot be considered truly great. Pelé and Maradona inspired those around them; so did Cristiano Ronaldo, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane. That’s long been a problem for Messi, who is too unassuming to berate, cajole and revile the men around him into raising their game. Instead, they sometimes look awestruck at being on the same pitch as him.
Messi gets around that by taking on more responsibility. If he can’t inspire the rest of the team he takes up the slack himself, working harder, scoring more goals, laying on passes for others. The games he wins almost single-handedly, for both club and country, are not rare. It doesn’t always work – one man can only do so much – and Messi was quieter than usual in a final decided by an Ángel Di María goal. But his team mates know their place; as Messi dropped to his knees at the final whistle they all ran towards him. The message, repeated throughout the weekend on Argentinian television, was clear: the title was for a deserving nation, but mostly it was for a deserving Messi.
The way Argentinians feel about Messi is different from the unconditional love they had for Maradona, the wayward genius who died last year. Especially compared to Maradona, Messi was for a long time seen as bloodless and cool. He has changed in recent years, tried to show more passion, and his compatriots have warmed to him. Yet he remains introverted, quiet, unflashy. The first thing he did after winning the Copa América was phone his family. Standing on the turf in Rio de Janeiro, holding his medal, he made a video call to his wife. ‘Where are you?’ he asked her.
Messi, who turned 34 last month, should still be the first name on Argentina’s team sheet at next year’s World Cup in Qatar. But the World Cup is a lot harder to win than the Copa América. South American teams won nine of the first seventeen World Cups but none of the last four. Football’s balance of power, once so finely poised between Europe and South America, has tilted decisively to the old world and no one is betting that Argentina will add a third star to their badge. But after sixteen years Messi has lifted a major trophy with the national team, lending considerable weight to his claim to be the greatest of all time.