After being forced to watch on from the sidelines in Argentina’s opening match, five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi will make his debut in the Copa America Centenario against Panama on Friday. Messi endured a difficult buildup to the tournament having suffered a back injury in a friendly match against Honduras before flying back to Spain to appear at a trial for alleged tax fraud. While he was officially listed among the substitutes as Argentina took on Chile in Santa Clara, California, on Monday, he took no part in the warmup and was not dressed to play.
However, coach Gerardo Martino revealed afterward that he expected his star man to be in condition to feature in Argentina’s second match and the former Barcelona boss has now confirmed that his star man will feature in Chicago on Friday.
“He has been training without any kind of problem, any kind of pain … so there is no reason for him not to play,” Martino said at his pre-match press conference.
It is not clear whether Messi will start the match, although there is no doubt that he, as ever, will be desperate to get out on the pitch from the off. Martino may have a more relaxed approach, given that without Messi Argentina still hugely impressed in their tournament debut. Ángel di María and Ever Banega both scored and provided an assist in a 2-1 victory over a Chile team that came out on top when the two sides met in the final of the 2015 Copa America. Messi’s direct replacement, Nicolás Gaitán, made an impact, too, heading against the cross bar in the first two minutes.
Still, Martino made it clear after the match that the quicker they get Messi back, the better.
“Our possibilities of winning the Copa America are always higher when he’s playing with the team,” he said.
For Argentina and Messi, there is huge motivation to lift the Copa America trophy at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on June 26. For the past two summers, Argentina have suffered agonizing failure in major finals, first in extra-time to Germany at the World Cup and then on a penalty shootout to Chile at the Copa America, to continue a trophy drought lasting since 1993.
Messi has borne the brunt of those disappointments, coming in for such harsh criticism after last summer’s Copa America that it was rumored he was considering walking away from his representing Argentina. While he has been crowned the best player in the world on five occasions and won every major prize available several times over with Barcelona, back home he has regularly faced difficult comparisons with Argentine legend Diego Maradona.
It was Maradona, who inspired Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, who was one of Messi’s sharpest critics a year ago, and he has again questioned whether the 28-year-old has the qualities to lead Argentina to glory.
“He is a great person, but he has no personality,” Maradona said in a promotional event for Euro 2016 in Paris on Thursday. "He doesn't have the personality to be a leader.”
Still, Argentina’s first performance has made them firm favorites to land this Copa America title. And, with Messi back in the fold, they could clinch a place in the quarterfinals with a win over Panama at Soldier Field.