SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was the most in-demand match of the group stage, but the man whose presence had helped make Argentina’s clash with Chile the hottest ticket of the Copa America Centenario and whose name adorned thousands of shirts at Levi’s Stadium was nowhere to be seen. As the Argentina players came jogging out of the tunnel 45 minutes before kickoff, the chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi” went up from those who had taken an early seat hoping to get every possible glimpse of the world’s greatest player.
Lionel Messi, though, remained behind the scenes.
It had been known that his participation in Argentina’s opening match of the Copa America Centenario was in severe jeopardy after a buildup to the event that could be described as anything other than ideal.
First came a blow to the back in a warmup match against Honduras that rang alarm bells aplenty and required a hospital visit before it was determined that it was just a heavy knock. Then came a trip to Spain and back to provide testimony at his trial for allegedly defrauding the country of $4.6 million in unpaid taxes.
With a decision still pending on the trial, only on Friday was Messi, bad back and all, able to rejoin his international teammates in Northern California. It adds only more scrutiny to the 28-year-old ahead of a Copa America that, while for some participants, notably Brazil, may not be the top priority, is a big deal for Argentina.
With club side Barcelona, Messi has conquered all before him. Since becoming a prominent part of the Catalans’ team a little over a decade ago, the boy from Rosario has won four Champions League titles, eight La Liga crowns and five Ballon d’Or awards, recognizing him as the greatest player of his generation.
Yet with his country it has been a different story. Argentina have not won an international trophy since 1993 and in the past two summers it has been a tale of heartbreaking near misses with the finger of blame falling on Argentina’s talisman.
Two summers ago came an agonizing loss on the biggest stage of them all, the World Cup final, when Messi shot wide with the sort of chance he has converted with such unnerving regularity for Barcelona. Messi collected the award for player of the tournament, but Germany grabbed the trophy that mattered after an extra-time winner.
Twelve months later came yet another bitter pill to swallow. At the Copa America, Argentina again made it through to the final, but again they fell short, this time on penalties to host Chile. Messi scored in the shootout but failed to net from open play in the tournament and back home was the man held responsible for the latest failings of a generation of talent that has promised so much but yet failed to deliver a big prize.
Messi, who left Argentina for Barcelona at the tender age of 13, developing into the world’s supreme player away from his homeland, bore the brunt of media and fan frustration. The man with whom Messi is so often compared, compatriot Diego Maradona, who did lead Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986, even stuck the knife in.
“We have the best in the world, who scores four against Real Sociedad and then comes here and does nothing,” Maradona said after the Copa America final. “I’ve had enough of those who say that we have to look after him.”
It got so bad after defeat to Chile last year that there were even rumors that Messi may decide the hassle was all too much and walk away from representing his country.
At the time, his head coach at Argentina even conceded he could have no qualms if that was the decision Messi reached.
“If I was Messi I would have left the national team some time ago and I would keep playing in Barcelona,” Gerardo Martino said.
Messi did not walk away, but as Argentina returned to Copa America action on Monday, facing a rematch with Chile to kick off the centenary edition of South America’s championship, he was to have only a watching brief.
It was not an ideal scenario for tournament organizers, who have already seen Brazilian star Neymar saved for the Olympics and another of the competition’s poster boys, Luis Suárez, ruled out of the opening matches through injury.
It was clear that Messi’s absence would have brought considerable disappointment to a large percentage of the 69,451 fans who packed into Levi’s Stadium. Ahead of kickoff, the Argentina shirt bearing Messi’s No. 10 was everywhere, whether or not the individual wearing it had any connection with the South American country. For many, getting to see the man in person they have so often see dazzle on television, brought excitement but also plenty of worry about whether he would get on the pitch.
One, Francisco Anguiano explained that the four-hour trip from Reno, Nevada, for the game would be well worth it if it meant getting to see Messi do his thing. Another, Alvaro Colmenares, originally from Buenos Aires, had paid $1000 for five tickets for him and his family. Yet, while excited, Colmenares was also one of those who believes Messi still has to deliver a moment of glory with Argentina to be considered the greatest player of not just this era but all-time and match the man with whom he is so often compared, compatriot Diego Maradona.
“Otherwise he’s going to be like some other great ones that never won,” he said. “Maradona won [in 1986], all the good ones won the World Cup. He needs to win a World Cup.”
The Copa America may not be the World Cup, but lifting a trophy with his country would still go some way to easing the pressure on his shoulders when he pulls on Argentina’s colors. And in that regard, even in his absence, Monday’s clash with Chile was a success.
Messi had been named among the substitutes for the match, and as he walked out to sit on the sidelines minutes before kickoff, photographers clamored to get a shot of one of the world’s most recognizable sports stars, tellingly dressed for comfort rather than playing.
In no time at all, though, attention had been grabbed by those who were on the pitch. The man who replaced Messi in Argentina’s starting lineup, Nicolás Gaitán, a playmaker with Portuguese club Benfica, headed against the Chile crossbar inside two minutes. After a thrillingly intense first half that gave the fans in attendance more than enough to satisfy, even without Messi, Argentina took control. In doing so, it showed that it is a team about more than just Messi.
Ángel di María, a star with French giants Paris Saint-Germain, led the way, scoring one goal and setting up a second in the pace of nine second-half minutes to help Argentina to an impressive 2-1 win.
It may not have been the perfect night for the fans, who, even with Argentina heading for victory, continued to chant “Messi, Messi, Messi,” with increasingly regularity throughout the game. Yet for Argentina, it had been a highly satisfying evening. The team is learning to thrive without Messi, something which can only be beneficial when he does make his return.
“Our possibilities of winning the Copa America are always higher when he’s playing with the team,” Martino said in his press conference after the game. “What we need to do is to respond the same when he’s not; we did not do it versus Ecuador [last October], but we did it versus Colombia and Chile [in World Cup qualifiers] and tonight.”
Although the man himself was silent afterward, Martino said that he expects Messi to be in condition to play when Argentina returns to action for its second group match against Panama on Friday, words which will delight those fans who have a prized ticket for the game at Chicago’s Soldier Field. And by the time the Copa America comes to a close at MetLife Stadium on June 26, a tournament which has faced plenty of problems, both before and after it got underway, could well be remembered as the moment Messi finally tasted the glory with his country he has enjoyed the world over with his club.