Lionel Messi finally did it. Despite his storied career, there had long been something missing for the world’s biggest soccer superstar as the 34-year-old had never been able to win a major international title with his native Argentina. That all ended Saturday night when Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 at the Copa América final in Rio de Janeiro. And while Argentina celebrated its first major international victory since 1993, it seemed everyone was really happy for Messi, who was finally able to celebrate with his teammates after years of crushing disappointments.
Messi was at the center of the celebrations Saturday night and Sunday morning even though Argentina won the final game with the first goal of the tournament that didn’t actually involve him. On Saturday, Ángel Di María was the one who put Argentina ahead in the 22nd minute with an unexpected goal that caught Brazil’s defense off guard. But when the whistle blew to end the final match, Messi dropped to his knees, put his face in his hands, and his teammates surrounded him in the recognition of what everyone immediately knew: This was Messi’s victory. A few minutes later, Messi was being tossed in the air and the star frequently characterized as the greatest soccer player of all time celebrated with a palpable sense of happiness.
The victory was undoubtedly made sweeter by the location. Argentina beat its historic rival Brazil in the iconic Maracanã stadium, the site of what was perhaps Messi’s most disappointing defeat in 2014, when Argentina lost against Germany in the World Cup final. Video of Messi calling his family from the middle of the pitch quickly went viral. “I won, I won!” he could be heard saying on the call as he showed off his golden medal. “I needed to remove the thorn of being able to achieve something with the national team,” Messi said in the dressing room after the victory. “I had been close for other years and I knew it was going to happen. I am grateful to God for giving me this moment, against Brazil and in Brazil. I was saving this moment for myself.” Messi was named player of the tournament with four goals and five assists.
Messi also received lots of praise from Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who said the team captain had played in the final with an injury. “If you knew the way that he played in the Copa América you’d love him even more,” Scaloni told reporters. “You can never do without a player like him, even when he is not fully fit like in this game and the previous one.”
The final marked the end of a tournament that had been plagued by controversy before it even began. The Copa América had been scheduled to be played in Colombia and Argentina. Colombia was removed as a host because of ongoing political violence. And shortly before the tournament was scheduled to start, Argentina bowed out from hosting it amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. That left organizers scrambling and Brazil offered to host the tournament even though it has suffered the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world after the United States. The pandemic seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of the thousands of people who gathered to celebrate into the early hours of Sunday morning in downtown Buenos Aires.