In the conversation of the greatest ever to play the game of soccer, there are only a few names that can be brought up with any level of s...
One of them -- perhaps the first one -- is Lionel Messi, who has the career and the accolades to argue he is already there.
There was always just one small-but-important point of contention that turned the subject of Messi's dominance to an open question rather than a declaration: Messi, for all his greatness and sheer genius, had never won a trophy for his country.
|Messi has suffered 3 successive final losses with Argentina|
The disappointment was palpable from the diminutive star. After he skied his penalty kick over the goal, he almost instinctively tried to hide his face in his shirt.
For Messi, whose final legacy was perhaps riding on whether or not he could deliver a title for his country, Sunday was a devastating missed opportunity.
Assuming Messi's post-game talk of leaving the international game was just an emotional outburst, he won't get a chance again for a title until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, two years away. But realistically, Sunday night was the best remaining chance he will have -- and perhaps even his last chance.
Argentina, ranked No. 1 in the world, have been a dominant force, reaching the final of the 2014 World Cup and last year's Copa America final, losing three finals in three years extra time or on penalty kicks. But a team can only stay as good as Argentina is right now for so long. They have gone 23 straight matches in major tournaments without a regular time loss, a six-year stretch that looks poised to end sooner rather than later.
By the time the next World Cup rolls around, Messi will be 31 and several of Argentina's best players will be worse for wear. Javier Mascherano will be 34, Ezequiel Lavezzi will be 33, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain will both be 30, and so on. If this Argentina squad was best equipped to win any tournament, it was the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
But Messi's run through the Copa America nor his legacy should be marred too badly by the finale -- a match where Argentina's shots seemed to sky over the net as if a greater power pre-determined it was Argentina's destiny to lose.
After missing the first group game due to a lingering back injury he sustained in a pre-tournament friendly, Messi quickly made his presence felt in his Copa America Centenario debut. Coming on in the 61st minute, he scored a stunning hat trick in just 29 total minutes on the field against Panama.
From there, Messi had set a bar to continue to do the sort of things only Messi can do. But even the world's greatest player has quiet outings. It didn't keep fans from being awed by the fancy foot work of a man who plays the game as naturally and effortlessly as most people walk.
The splendor of Messi's genius was a dagger for American fans in the semifinal. His inch-perfect free kick put the match impossibly out of reach for the underpowered U.S. team -- but for American fans in Texas, it is likely to be the most beautiful free kick they will have ever witnessed in person. With that goal, Messi became Argentina's all-time leading goalscorer.
This stateside edition of the Copa America was declared by some as not being a real Copa America. (Ask ex-Brazil coach Dunga or ex-Paraguay coach Ramon Diaz if it was real.) Some called it a cash grab as high ticket prices led to thin crowds at several matches. (The tournament will go down as the most well-attended Copa America ever.) The Copa America Centenario, which may prove to be a test-run for future combined events for the Americas, probably needed Messi to win a trophy more than Messi did for his legacy.
But for all that, there was perhaps no better occasion to celebrate Messi's genius and cement the rightful place in history of a legend than at the Copa America Centenario. The tears in Messi's eyes on Sunday suggest how important winning the title was to the Barcelona star.
The Rosario, Argentina native has won 19 major championships for Barcelona and has led his league or the world in goals or assists eight separate times. But the five-time world player of the year failed to put a swift end to any debate about whether or not he is the greatest ever -- and the debate will continue at least until the next World Cup, but now perhaps forever