After winning everything, Messi ready to exorcise Chile demons

Argentina’s Lionel Messi reacts after losing the Copa America final against Chile at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, U.S., June 26, 2016. /CFP

Argentina’s Lionel Messi reacts after losing the Copa America final against Chile at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, U.S., June 26, 2016. /CFP

As Lucas Biglia’s penalty kick was heartbreakingly thwarted by the Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, Lionel Messi, the maestro considered among the greatest footballers of all time alongside the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona, momentarily sought refuge by pulling his Argentina jersey over his face. In front of a record-breaking crowd of 82,026 at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the talisman attempted to escape the glaring spotlight that accompanied the 2016 Copa America final, as if yearning to shield himself from the inevitable purgatory.

With both Messi and Biglia faltering in their penalty attempts, Chile needed just one more successful conversion to secure the title and condemn Messi and Argentina to their third successive defeat in a major international final. Francisco Silva of Chile duly stepped up and calmly dispatched his shot inside the left post, sealing a 4-2 shootout victory for La Roja. 

Argentina's Lionel Messi in frustration after the Copa America final at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, U.S., June 26, 2016. /CFP

Argentina’s Lionel Messi in frustration after the Copa America final at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, U.S., June 26, 2016. /CFP

Argentina’s Lionel Messi in frustration after the Copa America final at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, U.S., June 26, 2016. /CFP

As the jubilant Chilean players celebrated their triumph, Messi removed his captain’s armband and made his way to the bench, seeking solace in the presence of Angel Di Maria. When he rose again, tears welled up in his eyes, the weight of the despondency becoming unbearable. Later in the day, in a shocking turn of events, Messi reemerged, ashen-faced, and announced his decision to retire from international football.

“In the locker room, I felt that my time with the national team was over, that it wasn’t meant for me,” the then 29-year-old told reporters. “It’s a profound sadness that I experienced after missing such an important penalty kick. This decision is for the benefit of everyone.”

After undergoing a period of deep reflection, Messi succumbed to the persuasive voices of coaches and teammates, ultimately retracting his premature decision to retire. He would go on to lead Argentina to their first major trophy in 28 years by clinching the 2021 Copa America title, followed by their first World Cup triumph in 36 years in 2022.

Argentina's Lionel Messi holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after winning the Copa America at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 10, 2021. /CFP

Argentina’s Lionel Messi holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after winning the Copa America at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 10, 2021. /CFP

Argentina’s Lionel Messi holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after winning the Copa America at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 10, 2021. /CFP

Yet, the memory of that infamous declaration in 2016 lingered like an indelible thorn in Messi. Now, at the age of 36, an opportunity for redemption presents itself. The draw for the 2024 Copa America was unveiled on Thursday night and it revealed a tantalizing prospect: reigning champions Argentina were drawn into Group A alongside none other than their long-standing adversaries Chile.

As if written in the script of fate, the clash between those two powerhouses will unfold at the MetLife Stadium, the very same ground where Chile emerged victorious in 2016. This serendipitous twist adds an extra layer of intrigue and intensity to the impending showdown, offering Messi a golden opportunity to exact sweet revenge and further etch his indelible legacy on the international stage.

The 2024 Copa America is set to feature an expanded lineup of 16 teams, including six invitees. Among them are the 2023-24 Nations League semifinalists Mexico, USA, Jamaica, and Panama, along with the two victors from the play-off games scheduled for March 23. This grand event will take place across 14 cities throughout the United States, captivating football fans from June 20 to July 14.

Groups are displayed on screens after the final draw for the Copa America at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, U.S., December 7, 2023. /CFP

Groups are displayed on screens after the final draw for the Copa America at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, U.S., December 7, 2023. /CFP

Groups are displayed on screens after the final draw for the Copa America at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, U.S., December 7, 2023. /CFP

Argentina, the reigning champions, will commence their campaign in Atlanta, where they will face either Canada or Trinidad & Tobago. The following match will see them locking horns with Chile in New Jersey. To wrap up their Group A journey, Argentina will take on Peru in Miami.

Meanwhile, the illustrious nine-time winners Brazil find themselves placed in a potentially challenging group. Alongside them in Group B are formidable opponents Colombia and Paraguay, as well as the yet-to-be-determined team in either Costa Rica or Honduras.

In other groupings, Mexico are in Group B, where the 2023 Gold Cup champion will cross paths with Ecuador, Venezuela, and Jamaica, while the hosts USA are positioned in Group C, poised to take on 15-time winners Uruguay, Panama, and Bolivia. 

The logo of Copa America 2024 is displayed outside prior the draw for the Copa America at James L. Knight Center in Miami, U.S., December 7, 2023. /CFP

The logo of Copa America 2024 is displayed outside prior the draw for the Copa America at James L. Knight Center in Miami, U.S., December 7, 2023. /CFP

The logo of Copa America 2024 is displayed outside prior the draw for the Copa America at James L. Knight Center in Miami, U.S., December 7, 2023. /CFP

The top two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals, where the intensity and drama will reach new heights. The semifinals will be held at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and the Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina, while the final will take place at the renowned Hard Rock Stadium in Florida.

It’s worth noting that 2024 Copa America could mark Messi’s swan song in a major tournament. While Chile have proven to be Argentina’s bogey team, much has changed since their 2016 encounter. One can’t help but anticipate that Messi and his compatriots will leave no stone unturned in their last hurrah, culminating in a spectacular crescendo that will reverberate throughout the world.

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