Copa America: Time to end years of tournament woe

Lionel Messi jokes with his team'mates during an Argentina training session. Picture: Getty
Lionel Messi jokes with his team'mates during an Argentina training session. Picture: Getty
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Not just the Copa America will end when Argentina and Chile meet in the final today. So will decades of disappointment for the eventual champions at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago.

Hosts Chile have never won the title in the Copa’s 99-year history. Argentina have gone 22 years without lifting a major trophy. The winners will celebrate an historic achievement. The losers will be left wondering how much longer the title drought will last.

Victory would also be extra special for Lionel Messi, who has thrived with Barcelona for years but has yet to give his national team much reason to celebrate. If Messi can finally lead his team to the title, he will be silencing many of the critics who say he has never played as well with the national team as he does with his club.

Argentina haven’t won a significant trophy since the 1993 Copa America, when Messi was only six years old. Since then, they have failed in seven Copa Americas and six World Cups, with Messi playing in five of those tournaments.

The playmaker helped Argentina’s Under-23s win the Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but he still has nothing to show when it comes to the senior squad.

Argentina came close to breaking through for a major title when they reached the World Cup final in Brazil last year, losing 1-0 to Germany in extra time. They lost in the quarter-finals in 2006 and 2010 and lost consecutive Copa America finals to Brazil in 2004 and 2007. In the 2011 tournament at home, Argentina didn’t make it past the quarter-finals.

“We are stubborn,” Argentina defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano said. “We keep trying to win one of these championships. Hopefully, it will finally happen on Saturday.”

If it does, Argentina will win a 15th Copa America, equalling Uruguay as the tournament’s most successful team. Argentina are brimming with confidence after trouncing Paraguay 6-1 in the semi-finals, when Messi didn’t score but helped set up five goals, a performance reminiscent of the ones he pulls off with Barcelona. For Chile, hosting the event has given it the best chance yet to break through for a major championship.

“For a lot of people, it would be enough to have reached the final,” said Claudio Bravo, the Chile goalkeeper a with nearly 100 caps. “What could be better than winning the Copa America playing at home?”

Chile has a golden generations of players. Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli leads a team including Juventus team-mates Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez, Napoli striker Eduardo Vargas, Inter Milan defensive midfielder Gary Medel, Fiorentina attacking midfielder Matias Fernandez, and Palmeiras playmaker Jorge Valdivia. They are keen to rub out memories of four previous runners-up finishes, including at home in 1955. “We are committed to reaching the next level,” defender Eugenio Mena said. “We want to win this tournament once and for all.”

Chile are the tournament’s top scorers with 13 goals in five matches. The defence hasn’t been as good, conceding five goals, and will need to improve to keep out Argentina’s array of scoring options. “We are not afraid,” Bravo added. “The word ‘fear’ hasn’t been spoken by any of my team-mates. This is something only [the media] is talking about.”

Chile, who beat ten-man Peru in the semi-finals, will be without defender Gonzalo Jara, banned from the tournament after provoking Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani by poking his backside in the quarter-finals. Vidal, who crashed his car while drink driving a day after a group match, is set to play after being allowed to stay with the squad.

Argentina coach Gerardo Martino has a doubt over defender Ezequiel Garay, who has been nursing a stomach illness.