Aiming to finally bring an end to his country’s international trophy drought and at long last add a senior title with Argentina to the 28 he has won with Barcelona and five Ballon d’Ors he has claimed as an individual, Lionel Messi is going to some unusual lengths. The clean-cut golden boy of international soccer has grown a beard and vowed he won’t be shaving it off until his team, so he hopes, lifts the Copa America trophy aloft on June 26.
"If I lose the beard, the others would kill me,” Messi said earlier this week. "We believe this is a kabbalah which will allow us to break our bad run and win the trophy. There's no way I'm shaving it off now, my team-mates wouldn't let me.”
While the superstition may not actually be what helps Argentina land its first title since 1993, another development involving Messi during the Copa America Centenario might just prove decisive.
Argentina has endured agony in major tournaments over the past two years, first losing the World Cup final to an extra-time goal from Germany and then the 2015 Copa America final on a penalty shootout to host Chile. On both occasions, the outstanding player of his generation struggled to show his best and earned criticism aplenty from back home. After last summer’s Copa America loss, the volume of the backlash against Messi was so strong that even coach Gerardo Martino admitted he wouldn’t blame the Barcelona star if he decided to walk away from representing the national team.
The idea that Messi is more invested in winning for Barcelona rather than his country is, to most observers, ludicrous. Instead, the far likelier cause of Messi’s struggles at the climax of major tournaments is simply fatigue. Grueling seasons with Barcelona, going all the way, or nearly all the way, in every competition it enters with Messi playing in almost every game, has taken its toll by the time the summer rolls around.
It is why Messi’s at the time unwelcome preparation for the Copa America Centenario could end up proving highly beneficial. Having suffered a back injury in his side’s sole warm-up game, not to mention traveling back and forth across the Atlantic for a trial into alleged tax fraud, Messi was not exactly raring to go when Argentina opened its campaign against Chile on June 6.
Indeed, he didn’t appear at all in the first match in Santa Clara, California. And it wasn’t until the 61st minute that Messi made his appearance in the second match against Panama, although it didn’t take much time for him to make a sizable impact. By the end of the 87th minute, Messi had fired a superb hat-trick that showed he was ready to make his mark on the tournament.
Still, the fact that the Argentina team was functioning so well in his absence and had already effectively secured top spot in Group D before its final match, meant that Martino could continue to ease him back against Bolivia. This time he got 45 minutes in another comfortable Argentina win.
Thus, Messi now reaches the knockout phase and Argentina’s quarterfinal against Venezuela on Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, having played just 75 minutes in the tournament. It is sufficient to get him in shape, but little enough to help ease the threat of burnout.
It has not been all smooth sailing for Argentina, and an injury that is likely to sideline Ángel di María until at least a possible final, constitutes a significant blow. But the team has still looked a cut above the rest in the first Copa America to be played outside of South America.
It will certainly go into its quarterfinal as strong favorite to progress to a last four meeting with the host United States. But it would be unwise to write off a team that has already been a surprise package in this tournament.
Expectations were certainly not high for a Venezuela outfit that sat bottom of South American World Cup qualifying standings with a solitary point from six matches and had only changed coach in April. But former goalkeeper and Venezuela youth-team coach Rafael Dudamel has quickly made his new side extremely difficult to beat.
In three group matches, Venezuela conceded just one goal and that was a wonder strike form Jesús “Tecatito” Corona in a 1-1 draw when both sides’ progress had already been secured.
Still, Dudamel will know that Argentina, and a refreshed Messi, will present by far the biggest test yet to his team’s new-found resolve.
Prediction: With only one goal conceded and just three scored, it is not hard to see the area of the team that Dudamel has made the priority since taking charge, or how Venezuela will approach a match with Argentina. It could have some success, too, particularly striking on the counter attack against a defense that is not yet wholly convincing. But, with the huge array of attacking talent at its disposal, even without Di María, it would be a huge surprise if Argentina did not end up finding the back of the net at least once.
Predicted Score: Argentina 2-0 Venezuela