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Lionel Messi finally ticked the last empty box in his glamorous football career on Saturday evening and led Argentina 1-0 against hosts Brazil in the Copa America final in Rio de Janeiro.
The trophy was Messi’s first trophy with Argentina after a string of painful, excruciating and insane failures, including perhaps the most demoralizing loss of his career – to Germany in the World Cup final – at the same stadium, Rio’s giant Maracanã, in 2014.
When the final whistled, Messi – his relief is palpable – fell on his knees and was immediately surrounded by his teammates. Moments later they lifted it over their shoulders and tossed it into the air.
“I had to take the thorn in my side to be able to achieve something with the national team,” said Messi after the festivities in the locker room, according to the Associated Press. “I’ve been around for other years and I knew it was going to happen. I am grateful to God that he gave me this moment, against Brazil and in Brazil. I’ve saved this moment for myself. “
In more than a decade at the top of his sport, the 34-year-old Messi had won almost every football award imaginable with his Spanish club team Barcelona: every award, accolade, trophy, championship and trophy.
And year after year he had won nothing with Argentina.
His friend Ángel Di María finally delivered the prize and gave Argentina the lead in the 22nd minute after receiving a long cross pass from low-lying midfielder Rodrigo De Paul to the right wing. He controlled the ball on rebound with a single deft touch of his left foot after jumping past Brazilian left-back Renan Lodi, shot over Brazil goalkeeper Ederson, which landed softly in the net.
When Messi and the rest of the Argentine team took on Di María, the Brazilians were stunned. The goal was only the third they had allowed in the tournament.
Messi had worn Argentina in Brazil last month while hunting the kind of trophy he had coveted for so long. That summer he led the Copa America by four goals and five assists, but he had done that before and then missed out on the final win.
Repeated failures – at the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 and 2016 Copa América finals – pulled Messi at least twice from the national team. But both times he had given in and returned to take his first senior title. This month, Argentina’s players had set themselves the task of delivering it.
“Messi is one step ahead of all of us,” De Paul had said before the semi-finals. “We’re all on the same path. What matters is to win. “
“We gave it to Messi,” said Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, “who deserved it the most.”
Saturday’s game was the lively, fiery affair that either of South America’s two greatest powers had expected; a six-inch piece of Brazilian star Neymar’s pants was torn away in the first half, and Messi once dived on the sidelines with a rare scissors game.
Brazil watched the game and sent a wave of attackers after half-time: Roberto Firmino came on for break, followed by Vinicius Júnior and Gabriel Barbosa as Brazil pressed for the equalizer.
Richarlison believed he had equalized in the 52nd minute when he ran into a leading ball from Lucas Paquetá and shot a low shot. But replays showed that he broke a split second too early and the goal was not recognized because of offside.
Two minutes later he was back inside, this time onside, but his shot went off stopped at close range and pushed aside by Martínez.
The chances kept coming, on both sides – even Messi blew a one-on-one into goal late in the game – but as the minutes passed and the tackles got tougher and the dives and requests for foul calls more emphatic, the score changed not yourself.
Messi was finally champion in Argentina’s blue and white.