Hosts Chile ended their long wait for a Copa America title in dramatic circumstances, beating Argentina 4-1 on penalties in the 2015 final after 120 goalless minutes in Santiago. After Gonzalo Higuain blazed over and Ever Banega had his effort saved by Sergio Romero, it was Alexis Sanchez who did the honors of converting the winning penalty with the coolest of dinks down the middle to send the home crowd into raptures.
For Chile, it was their first ever victory in the 99-year history of South America’s championship, and, indeed, their first senior international title of any description. In contrast, for Argentina the wait goes on. Without any silverware at senior level since the 1993 Copa America, a golden generation of talent, including arguably the best player in history, Lionel Messi, have now followed up last year’s World Cup final extra-time defeat with an even more agonizing loss.
Argentina came into the contest as favorites after a squad full of world-class attacking talent found their goal-scoring form in emphatic fashion to blitz Paraguay 6-1 in the semifinals. But there was precious little of that attacking verve on display on Saturday, with Tata Martino’s team for the most part happy to diligently sit back and hope to prosper from counter-attacks and set-pieces. In a fractious contest, yellow cards were far higher in number than goal-scoring chances, even with the referee taking a lenient view of several heavy challenges. But it was Chile who played with more purpose, sticking to the attack-minded style that has one them the favor of so many neutrals around the globe and helped build the country into a footballing force in recent years.
A thunderous atmosphere was generated by a wall of red inside the Estadio Nacional, and the opening stages of the final were played at a tempo to match. Chile, having looked weighed down by the heavy expectation on their shoulders in the previous knockout rounds, began at an intensity in keeping with their famed style.
Three times in the opening three minutes they got in behind an Argentina defense struggling with the pace of their opponents and particularly that of Sanchez. The only disappointment from such a promising start was that the hosts couldn’t capitalize on the score sheet. Jorge Valdivia looked for a teammate when he could have shot himself, while Sanchez also saw a cross cut out when in a good position.
Argentina’s best sight of goal early on came when Sergio Aguero got a header onto Lionel Messi’s free-kick, but Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was able to react quickly and parry it to safety. It was to be a cruel, apparent hamstring, injury to Angel di Maria 25 minutes in, which forced a delay and the introduction of Ezequiel Lavezzi from the bench, which allowed Argentina the chance to compose themselves and start to get a foothold in the contest.
As Chile’s early pressure unsurprisingly relented, Argentina finished the half the stronger and had a golden chance to get a breakthrough goal. Javier Pastore did well down the left to check back on his defender and roll the ball into the path of Lavezzi, but a side-footed effort from the Paris Saint-Germain forward was straight at Bravo who beat it away.
That momentum wasn't to be continued, however, and the second half kicked off much like the first, with Argentina struggling to cope with Chile’s pace. In the opening minute of the period Sanchez crossed for Arturo Vidal, who could only head straight at Sergio Romero in the Argentina goal. While not posing the same threat as earlier, it was Chile that continued in the ascendency for the second 45 minutes as Argentina took a safety-first approach. Often, though, the final touch for the hosts was lacking. The big chance for Chile to win it came with eight minutes remaining, when the excellent Charles Aranguiz picked out Sanchez with a fine ball over the top, but the Arsenal man whizzed a volley just past the far post.
Even greater drama was to come at the other end. Argentina finally stepped up a gear in the closing stages and could have had a penalty when Francisco Silva held back Marcos Rojo in the box. And then with seconds remaining of injury time came the clearest opportunity of the contest and the one that will surely be running over in their minds for some time to come. Messi’s brilliance created the opening, as he waltzed past Marcelo Diaz and then slipped in Lavezzi to his left. But the resulting pass from Lavezzi had perhaps just too much on it and Higuain arriving at the far post could only put the ball into the side netting from a yard away. It was still a huge disappointment for Higuain, though, who missed a wonderful chance in the World Cup final and was still to experience even more agony in the shootout.
Berfore that, though, Chile let slip the clearest chance in extra time. After Javier Mascherano missed his kick on halfway, Sanchez was away down the right from Bravo’s long throw, but as Pablo Zabaleta came across to apply pressure, the Chilean fired over the crossbar. Fortunately for him and his country, there was soon to be an even better opportunity for glory. And this time he brilliantly kept his cool to write he and his teammates into the history books.