The Curse Goes On
Another final, another defeat for Argentina as Chile triumphed in the Copa América Centenario
There was nothing and no one to blame. No clod of loose soil under the penalty spot, no slippery surface and no cursed millimetre of inaccuracy that leads a shot to crack against the woodwork and stay out. Lionel Messi struck the ball well and it sailed hard and true, too hard, too true, sharply over the crossbar and into a sea of stunned supporters behind Claudio Bravo and his untroubled net.
Messi grabbed the bottom of his white-and-blue striped jersey with both hands, before letting it fall, and covering his face to try and hide his pain. It was futile. And that was before the tears arrived. Thousands of phone camera flashes sought him out as he reached his lowest ebb in New Jersey’s MetLife stadium.
Anyone who observed Messi's penalty taking last season — he missed four for Barcelona — should have been at least prepared for him to falter. But there was still something startling and strange about seeing the most flawless player football has ever seen fail so glaringly in a clutch moment.
His bad record verges on unacceptable. How can a player so cool in every other situation succumb to this pressure from 12 yards so frequently? The question was still being asked when Nicolas Castillo rammed his penalty home to send Chile ahead 1-0 in the penalty shoot-out.
This year’s final was a repeat of 2015’s. The same two teams, the same goalless outcome after 90 minutes, still goalless by the time the clock ticked around to 120 minutes and the same end-game: Chile win on penalties.
Arturo Vidal had missed the first kick, his effort well saved by Sergio Romero, but when Messi wasted Argentina's reply, the error of ‘el Rey’ was already forgotten. By chance Messi and Vidal, in that order, had been the two best players in the Copa América Centenario and both came a cropper in their final contributions.
A Chile fan called Pedro Vasquez caught the ball from Messi's failed shot, little knowing how poignant a memento it would make. It may be the last Messi ever kicks while wearing an Argentina shirt. His international retirement was the second bomba of the night and a blast which put Chile's hugely admirable, against-the-odds triumph undeservedly but, to be brutally honest, necessarily in the shade.
It took la Roja 99 years to win their first Copa América and lifting a second — although the Centenario will count as a one-off special edition, which even has a new trophy — was not expected after their coach Jorge Sampaoli quit after a bust-up with the Chilean football federation in January. For Juan Antonio Pizzi to take over a side that was starting to flail and drive them to victory again was remarkable. Nobody wanted the job — he was the only man brave enough to take it on, with Chile’s golden generation ageing and the position looking like a poisoned chalice ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
And yet, less than 90 minutes after ice-cool Francisco Silva limbered up and sent Romero the wrong way to earn Chile the trophy, it was soon an irrelevance in the eyes of the world but for its place as an element of a much bigger story.
If Messi looked distraught after his own miss, things worsened considerably when Lucas Biglia saw his effort repelled by Bravo. Javier Mascherano and Sergio Agüero had converted their penalties to keep the score level, but with Charles Aranguíz and Jean Beausejour following Castillo, it was up to the Lazio midfielder to maintain parity.
Messi’s club mate guessed correctly and made a fine stop from Biglia’s effort. The No 10 turned away, aghast, shirt now pulled up over his mouth, almost unable to watch. Silva did the business with the final kick and as Chile players sprinted off to celebrate in one corner of the stadium, the cameras cut to Messi, fingers running through his hair, distressed. Back to Chile, utterly jubilant, and then back to Messi, somehow already wedged on the substitutes bench, alone.
For minutes he did not move. But eventually he walked, broken, to join his teammates back on the pitch, tears wetting his face. Tears which poured scorn on some of his compatriots’ ideas that he does not bleed for the national team, but any tears other than tears of joy were never going to be enough to change hearts and minds.
He mouthed words softly to himself, weighing up the thoughts rushing through his head, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to hazard a guess as to what was happening behind his haunted eyes.
While Pizzi was singing Messi’s praises in his press conference, labelling him the best player of all time, the star was stopping in the mixed zone to speak to Argentinian reporters, making an announcement which would soon crash into the world’s media. He seemed much calmer, with even the slightest hint of a smile flashing — because the crying had already been done.
"That's it," Messi explained. "It's over for me with the national team. That's four finals. [Winning] is what I wanted most but it didn't come. That's how I feel now, what I think. I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion. I think there's a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, just as we are not satisfied reaching a final and not winning it. It’s very hard but the decision is taken. I will not try anymore and there is no going back."
In 2007 Messi played his first Copa América final with Argentina, going down 3-0 against Brazil. Seven years later Germany beat his team in the World Cup final, before consecutive Copa defeats by Chile put the final nails in his international career's coffin.
Or did they? As revealed by his Instagram outburst against Argentina’s football association (AFA) days before the final, all was not well between Messi and the Albiceleste. Retiring may have been a premeditated decision. Messi put himself forward for a rare press conference on the Friday night before the tournament concluded on Sunday, pledging to speak fully about his grievances after it was over. He may even have retired even if Argentina had won. And he may return.
North America was not the most obvious place to host the Copa América, given it was the 100th birthday celebration of a South American tournament in which the US national team has only featured by invitation. But on the other hand, where else could it have been held?
The simple reason for the creation of the tournament is money and staging it in the USA meant access to stadiums and infrastructure which needed no modification to host the event, as well as hundreds of thousands of fans raring to see the likes of Messi play a competitive match live. At times it felt like it had been created just for him — at least before the twist at the end.
Mexico was in the running too, but dropped out late in 2015. Instead of inviting worldwide teams like Japan to make up the numbers, as has been done previously, this was kept as a “celebration of the Americas”, with six Concacaf teams joining the usual 10 suspects from Conmebol. A nice idea and one which will surely not end here, even if the centenary was a good excuse for it.
There was not a great deal of enthusiasm in some quarters for the tournament, so soon after the last, but it served a purpose for the bigger sides at least. Argentina were desperate to end their 23-year trophy drought, Pizzi had the chance to shape his Chile side ahead of Russia 2018 and it turned into a noose for Brazil manager Dunga to hang himself with as he tried and failed to make amends for last year’s limp showing.
Luis Suárez was determined to make his return to tournament action with Uruguay, Jürgen Klinsmann wanted the USA to test themselves against strong opposition, the Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio got his first taste of international tournament action and Colombia could start to bring through some younger players into a side that had grown a little stale.
They kicked off the tournament against the USA at an almost-full Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Many of the old guard like Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martínez were left out and they made the perfect start, with Cristián Zapata converting a corner in the eighth minute before James Rodríguez made it two from the penalty spot just before the interval after DeAndre Yedlin’s handball.
James had endured a painful season at Real Madrid with both Rafa Benítez and Zinedine Zidane deciding he didn't merit a place in the team, but he blew the cobwebs away with his penalty and performance here, and Colombia's substitutes sprinted onto the pitch to celebrate with him. At the end of the game Los Cafeteros' players fell to their knees and pointed up at the heavens. If there was any doubt left over whether this tournament mattered, they dispelled it.
As for the USA, they showed few signs they were going to make it out of the group, let alone reach the semi-finals. Klinsmann picked a side he trusted, rather than the one fans wanted to see, with the 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic only allowed a brief cameo as a substitute.
Regardless, the fans gave the impression they were watching something wondrous. Maybe they were — at one point Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron robbed James before pirouetting around Daniel Torres like a spinning top as he rampaged out of defence. That’s not something you see every day. Although their side struggled to create any chances of note, there was genuine excitement among supporters when the US roamed up field and it felt as if many in the stadium were discovering football, real quality football, for the first time — and they liked it.
The hardcore USA supporters — the American Outlaws — were less sure. Klinsmann’s aims were muddled. A little over a week before the tournament he claimed the final four was the goal, before backtracking on the eve of the Colombia clash, saying getting through the Copa’s toughest group was what his team had to aim for. Although pundits generally seemed pleased with the display because they had more possession than Colombia, the truth was their opponents sat back and held on to their advantage, looking for opportunities to strike on the break.
The real winners, though, were the giant moths. Tens of thousands of the beasts were flying around the stadium, crashing into anybody who dared stand in their way. What their way was, not even they knew, but goddammit if they weren’t going to try to get there.
It may be called the Rose Bowl but the stench left in Pasadena after Brazil's 0-0 draw with Ecuador was not a pleasant one.
The second day of the Copa América had fallen flat after the exciting opener teed up the tournament nicely, with the only real intrigue stemming from a bad decision which saved Dunga's men from a humiliating defeat. Nobody left happy, boos rang out from all sides. Ecuador fans were furious at being robbed, Brazilians furious at the predicament of their national team, Americans upset at a thoroughly unentertaining evening.
In the day’s first match in Group A, Costa Rica shared a dull 0-0 draw with Paraguay at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando, formerly the Citrus Bowl, played out in 34-degree heat. That was followed up by a narrow one goal win for Peru against Haiti in Group B, with the veteran forward Paolo Guerrero living up to his ‘Predator’ nickname in Seattle, before Brazil’s stalemate with Ecuador.
The next day Venezuela squeezed out a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Group C, a better encounter, but that was not a difficult achievement. The Leicester City captain Wes Morgan was left on the bench for the Reggae Boys because he was still recovering after partying hard with his club side after their shock Premier League win, although he was brought on after 40 minutes when Kemar Lawrence suffered an injury. By that point Josef Martínez had already scored the goal which would divide the teams, setting up Venezuela for a run that would become one of the stories of the tournament.
All these games were notable for their poor attendances.
Allegedly the latter had a crowd of 25,560, but as Chris Hine wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The only way there were 25,560 people in the stands at Soldier Field was if you counted everyone twice, maybe even three times."
The Chicago stadium, perched by Lake Michigan, can hold north of 60,000 fans. So even if the claimed figure was true, it was still over half empty. By the end of the tournament the Copa América organisers would boast of record attendances, but those figures don't fairly reflect the atmospheres at many of the games. By selling out vast NFL grounds for teams like Argentina and the USA, the average attendance of 46,000 was higher than at any other Copa, but that covers up some of the early, flat group matches. Ticket prices were high, even for games between lesser lights, and more thought could have gone into the stadium selection — why not use smaller, actual soccer grounds for some games to pack them out before reverting to the giant units for key clashes?
Even the Brazil match wasn’t particularly well attended, with swathes of empty seats visible, although the stadium seemed to fill up more after the break, implying many arrived late or were having too much fun tailgating outside. There were barbecues, beers and good times going on in the fields that surrounded the stadium, with fans mingling happily, kicking footballs into the sky, which was a heck of a lot better than the game itself.
Between a heat wave, particularly in the south-west, which made June 2016 the hottest June on record, and the low crowds at some games, the Copa started slowly — but it was almost over for Brazil before it began.
Despite protracted negotiations with Barcelona, Dunga was unable to secure Neymar’s services for the tournament. He could have forced the issue by picking him anyway, but then they would have prevented him playing in the Olympic Games, a competition which Brazil, never having won it before, valued above this Copa.
As it happened, Neymar turned up to the Ecuador game at the Rose Bowl anyway, hobnobbing in the stands with Justin Bieber, Jamie Foxx and Lewis Hamilton. How Brazil could have used his invention on the pitch.
In 1994 Dunga was the hero at this ground, scoring the final penalty in the shoot-out against Italy to win them the World Cup, but these days he is firmly a villain. To be fair to the beleaguered coach, Brazil also suffered from factors out of his control ahead of the tournament. Rafinha and Douglas Costa would have played key roles but dropped out injured, along with Ederson and Ricardo Oliveira. Kaká, who replaced Costa, got injured himself and was withdrawn. Luiz Gustavo pulled out for personal reasons.
Dunga also blasted an unnamed player, thought to be Gabriel Jesus, for not having organised his visa ahead of the tournament and ended up taking Lucas Moura instead. However, leaving out the likes of Oscar, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Marcelo, among others, was nobody's fault but his own.
Brazil were also forced to change training venue ahead of the Ecuador clash because of a murder-suicide at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, near the hotel they were staying in. Torrential rain forced a second change in Orlando later in the tournament.
After a fast-paced opening, with Willian and Philippe Coutinho showing some sparkle, the game slowed down and became a drudge, before the key moment, or non-moment, arrived in the 66th minute.
Miller Bolaños zipped down the left flank and fired in what was actually quite a poor cross, low to Alisson's near post. Alisson, stooping to collect it, inexplicably shuffled it into his own net. His shame was ended by the officials deciding it had gone out of play before Bolaños crossed it. Replays showed that was not the case.
The Ecuador coach Gustavo Quinteros pulled no punches in his press conference. "If the play had been on the other side, we doubt very much that the referee would have decided to invalidate the goal," he said, justifiably bitter. "We're very angry about that. All that effort, all that work, and we get a goal taken away from us.
"With a bionic look, the linesman decided to invalidate our goal. I saw it 25 times on video just now and the ball never went out completely. Maybe 70% went out of bounds. And [the assistant referee is] so sure of himself, even though he's 50, 60 metres away. If he had been closer, then I guess we wouldn't be as angry.”
Brazil and Ecuador fans were among those to pay their respects — and pose for selfies — at Muhammad Ali’s Walk of Fame star in Hollywood, the only one to be cast on a wall rather than the pavement. He didn’t want anybody trampling upon the name of the prophet. The day after the boxing legend’s death, it was one of the few places away from the games themselves where a regular flow of football shirts could be spotted.
Given the vast sizes of the host cities and the distance of the grounds from the most obvious places to stay for fans looking to squeeze some tourism in too, there wasn’t much of a tournament feel.
While many bars showed the games, the Copa matches felt like just another sporting event among many, jostling for position alongside baseball, basketball and rolling 24-hour news. And unlike the previous edition, where Arturo Vidal’s Ferrari smash-up dominated even the regular headlines, in a country where soccer barely brushes over the general consciousness, Donald Trump and gun violence commanded the air time.
“The Copa América, what is that, a boat race?” the official in charge of deciding whether or not I could have a work visa for the USA had asked. Several people I encountered had no idea the tournament was on at all, let alone what it concerned.
Chile is a country obsessed with football and that showed. It was impossible in 2015 to enter a bar without learning the latest Copa América news, usually scrolling along the bottom of the screen. In the US, unless you were alert and actively seeking them, even relatively big tournament stories could sail by. While the Copa felt like it eased some of the problems Chile was suffering, this version at times seemed an irrelevance in the face of some of the dark issues that bubble on in the US.
Luis Suárez delivered, as he always does. This time without even needing to kick a single ball.
Having whacked, scrounged, cannoned and scissored home 59 goals for Barcelona last season, Suárez was expected to be one of the stars of the show in the States. This was his big comeback, after all.
The last time he featured in a tournament for his country was in 2014, when he bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup and was subsequently banned for nine international matches on top of picking up a four-month 'global' suspension.
He made his return for Uruguay in a World Cup qualifier against Brazil in March, 640 days on from the bite. Suárez scored in that game, humiliating David Luiz in the process and also mourning the passing of his great friend and Uruguay's physio Walter Ferreira by brandishing a t-shirt with a photo of the two of them printed on it.
Known as 'Manosanta' – holy hand – Ferreira had quit the national team before the World Cup as he tried to fight Hodgkin's lymphoma, but Suárez begged him to come, to help the striker overcome his knee injury sustained in the build-up. Despite needing keyhole surgery and spending some time in a wheelchair, Suárez started the second game and struck twice against England, virtually eliminating them.
Cancer eventually took Walter early in January. Suárez was left missing him more than ever after suffering a hamstring injury in the Copa del Rey final, a blow which reduced him to tears as he faced the prospect of missing out on the Copa América.
He did not play in the first game against Mexico, which saw two of the tournament's dark horses square off. Suárez's only contribution was to make a face of bemusement, rage and disgust, as if someone had spiked his ever-present pot of mate, as Chile's national anthem was accidentally played in place of Uruguay's.
The Copa organisers apologised for the mishap after the game, but the match itself was the best of the tournament to that point, with Mexico running out 3-1 winners, but only after threatening to throw it all away. It took an 85th minute strike from the 37-year-old legend Rafael Márquez to win the game, with Héctor Herrera's stoppage-time strike making it look easier than it was. Uruguay suffered the first half from hell, although chalking it up to their distress at the anthem situation would be generous.
In the fourth minute Alvaro Pereira headed the ball neatly past his own goalkeeper, Fernando Muslera, to score the earliest own goal in the tournament's history. Having been banned for eight games during his club season with Estudiantes in Argentina, before being sent off on his Getafe debut and later relegated with the Madrid-based side, this capped a period of Alvaro's career that he would rather forget.
Edinson Cavani donned his habitual buffoon costume for Uruguay, missing a huge opportunity after being fed by Nicolás Lodeiro. And then Matías Vecino was booked for the second time on the stroke of half-time. However, despite playing the second half with 10 men, Uruguay were by far the better team.
András Guardado was dismissed for Mexico to level the numbers and then Diego Godín did as Diego Godín does, nodding home the equaliser as El Tri rocked, until Márquez blasted home from close range.
After the game, the Mexico manager Osorio lashed out at Uruguay’s centre-back José María Gímenez for insulting him at the end of the match, claiming the Atlético Madrid star was angry because he had told his players to focus on his weaker left foot. "I think it was very clear, no? After the game Mister Giménez came, insulted me and went," said Osorio. "He behaved badly and disrespectfully towards me. It's inappropriate for a professional who doesn't just play for one of the best clubs in the world, Atlético Madrid, but also one of the best national teams. This should not be accepted in professional football.
"Any coach has the right to direct the play at the weaker foot of any player."
Uruguay’s second game saw them take on Venezuela, a crunch clash in which a defeat would mean they were effectively eliminated from the tournament, pending Mexico’s result against Jamaica. Suárez was still marked as ‘injured’ on the team sheet.
Salomón Rondón put Venezuela ahead in strange fashion after 36 minutes, as Alejandro Guerra fired in a strike from 50 yards out which Muslera managed to tip onto the crossbar despite starting in an awkward position, but the West Bromwich Albion forward was on hand to tuck the loose ball home.
Cavani had already missed two glorious opportunities, air-kicking in the 15th minute instead of slotting home before brushing Gaston Ramírez's swerving free-kick onto the outside of the post instead of into the net. Suárez would have scored them both, screamed the narrative. And then came the madness.
Having warmed up with the team before the game, Suárez's role seemed largely to be that of cheerleader. And yet there he was warming up again, running behind one of the goals to cheers from Uruguay supporters. There he was, taping up his ankle, as if readying himself to spring onto the pitch and be his country's saviour, the role he was born to play.
Óscar Washington Tabárez first brought on Diego Rolán and then Nicolás Lodeiro, with Suárez growing visibly frustrated on the bench. If at first his warm-up seemed like a move to shake Venezuela psychologically, boost his own teammates and enliven the supporters, his subsequent behaviour did not fit that reasoning.
When Mathías Corujo was introduced as the third substitute, Suárez went berserk. He ripped off his bib and stalked over towards his coach to scream at him before slamming his fist into the Perspex wall of the bench. He could not understand why he was not being brought on. Had nobody told him he was not on the bench?
Any chance of him featuring in the tournament at all was ended when Cavani missed his third fine chance of the match in the final throes of a thrilling game, firing wide when it seemed like glory beckoned. Uruguay, played two, lost two. Out.
Godín tried to shed some light on the situation. "Suárez wanted to play but he wasn't there," he said. "In his head he wanted to play for the team. I’ve played so many times with him and he really wanted to be out there."
Tabárez added: "The situation is just what I told you yesterday. The player isn’t ready to play yet, it's a medical issue. However much a player might get angry, I'm not going to play a player who isn't 100%.”
Amid all the confusion created by Suárez and the shame heaped upon Cavani, a fine performance by Venezuela went under the radar. They and Mexico topped the group heading into the final game against each other.
Mexico may have benefited from a factor which afflicted Uruguay — not having to travel huge distances, with all their games in the south-west. Tabárez highlighted that before the tournament itself. "This [tournament] is being played across the United States. I don't like that," he observed. "The teams that reach the final will have crossed the entire United States and it is an impressively big country."
Uruguay's first game had taken place in sweltering Arizona, while their second was more than 2,200 miles away on the east coast, in Philadelphia. At least by the time they played their third, back west in California, they had ensured nothing was at stake.
In baking San Jose heat a group of more than 50 men, women, and children stood around, talking quietly, waiting for the minutes and finally the seconds to tick down to midday. The setting was Plaza de César Chávez, a green patch of parkland in the middle of the city centre, surrounded by tall buildings and wide, dry streets. Those gathered were almost all Latinos and this was a call to the Hispanic community peacefully to fight the anti-immigrant rhetoric in US media and politics, which had been sharply increasing during the presidential race, largely thanks to Donald Trump's divisive campaign.
A couple of days before this meeting, a Trump rally in San Jose gathered thousands and there was some violence when protestors confronted them. This meeting was a message both to and from the Latino community that aggression is not the answer, but that denying Trump their vote was — and making sure they voted in number.
“For your community vote, for your family vote, for your children vote. For your future, vote,” urged Vanessa Castellanos, just one speaker among many. Some held placards aloft, written in both English and Spanish. “Build bridges, end racism,” read one, “America first” another. A teenage girl held a paper sign saying, “I am proud of my mum, she votes.”
These were people in pain. Some were immigrants, others second and third generation. They took turns standing tall at a lectern with a US flag draped over it and delivering their words. These were Americans who were sick of being told they were not American, they were worth less than real Americans, they were rapists, murderers, lazy, a drain on the economy, a stain on the country.
And yet the US had invited the whole of Latin America in, to play in the Copa. Bring your gold but don’t stick around too long. It was a contradiction neatly ribbed by the Argentinian television channel TyC Sports. Contrasting Trump's vitriolic, xenophobic “Build a wall” speech with images of Messi, Agüero and co. ripping apart defences and Argentinian fans marching was a stroke of genius. "The truth is, the best thing to do would be not to let us in," ran a tagline at the end.
It wasn’t a surprise, of course, given they were both finalists in 2015, but Argentina’s 2-1 win over Chile provided the highest quality match of the tournament’s first round. There was a full house for it at the Levi’s Stadium, with many hoping to see Messi, but thanks to a back injury sustained against Honduras in a pre-tournament friendly — as if any game against Honduras was going to be friendly — he was not going to feature. That didn’t stop them calling for him anyway. “Messi, Messi,” droned the chant and it was a constant at all of the Albiceleste’s games.
‘Tata’ Martino said before the clash that it was not a chance to make up for last year’s final. "Even if we played Chile in the final, it wouldn't be revenge," he said, with unwitting prescience. "It's just a new opportunity." The teams had met in a World Cup qualifying match since the last final anyway, with Argentina also winning 2-1.
Ángel Di María was the star, scoring one and creating one for Éver Banega. Nicolás Gaitán replaced Messi in the team but Di María bore the weight for his side as they overcame la Roja. Crying on television after the game, Di María mourned the death of his grandmother, who had passed away hours beforehand. "I wanted to play, my grandmother was so proud that I played for the national team," he explained. After his goal he had revealed a message on his shirt, reading, “Granny, I will miss you so much.”
Although Di María had posted in the afternoon on his social networks about her passing, Martino didn't have a clue until “five minutes ago”, he revealed in his post-match press conference. "Di María didn't tell me anything," he said. Tata being out of touch isn’t that surprising any more.
Argentina played a 4-3-3, with Gonzalo Higuaín flanked by Di María and Gaitán, with Manchester City striker Sergio Agüero starting on the bench. Martino likes this system but it means that his team have to leave one of their best players out, as he reckons Higuaín adds more as a lone centre-forward than Agüero.
Pizzi, meanwhile, said from the off that he wanted to continue the good work of Sampaoli, who himself was fleshing out the concept put in place by Marcelo Bielsa between 2007 and 2011. On this performance it looked like the attacking pizzazz was intact, even if some of the finishing wasn't up to scratch, but the defence seemed far less solid than it was a year ago. Bravo, the captain, made errors for both goals, which beat him at his near post, although Banega's strike took a small deflection. It was Pizzi’s fourth loss in his first five games as coach.
Di María was announced as man of the match towards the end of the game, but still the crowd chanted for Messi, with some grumbling and making their way out as Matías Kranevitter replaced Gaitán for Argentina's third change.
So no luck for the Californians, but spectators in Chicago were treated to something special in Argentina's second match, against Panama.
Blas Pérez had scored a brace as the Panamanians beat Bolivia in a wonderfully entertaining but error-riddled tournament opener, but coming up against Argentina was a rather more difficult challenge for la Marea Roja — the Red Tide.
It was more of a red mist, with Aníbal Godoy sent off, while Felipe Baloy, Pérez, Armando Cooper and Gabriel Gómez all made it into referee Joel Aguilar's notebook, as Panama kicked Argentina with joyful abandon. It should be noted, however, that they played well, despite the 5-0 scoreline, asking questions of Argentina's defence and forcing Martino to bring on Messi after 61 minutes, with Argentina's 1-0 lead not looking like it was strong enough to hold.
Within 19 minutes, it was 4-0 and Messi had a hat trick to his name. It would be easy to put his first goal down to fortune, with a Panama clearance smashing off Higuaín's face and falling at Messi's feet on the edge of the box. But Messi always seems to be in the right place at the right time and that is because he reads the game better than anybody else. He still had work to do, taking a touch to tee himself up and then a second to slot it home.
An inch-perfect, top corner free-kick 10 minutes later doubled his tally and then marvellous footwork in the box left Baloy behind and the ball was past goalkeeper Jaime Penedo in a flash. Messi still had time to create one more, with his exquisite pass cut back by Marcos Rojo for Agüero to fire home to seal the win. This was some Copa América Centenario bow for Messi, a half-hour justification of the tournament’s existence.
"If Messi is inspired, he can kill anyone," the Panama coach Hernán Dario Gómez said before the game, and he was right. The only bad news for Argentina was an adductor injury to Di María, who would not feature again until the final.
The USA had just seven months to prepare for the Copa América and you could tell. While, to their credit, they got the big issues right — the tournament passed without any major hitches — there were a few cracks showing. After the Uruguay anthem debacle, the end of Chile's was mixed with Pitbull's awful tournament theme song, “Superstar”.
Many of the stadium staff were unaware of where people had to go, which areas were out of bounds and so on. There was even one absurd attempt to stop journalists taking laptops into a press entrance. The Copa organisers were extremely protective over the rights of broadcast media. If anyone was caught filming anything or even taking pictures in a zone where it was deemed they couldn't, they were reprimanded. Signs taped up around mixed zone areas read “Asking for autographs or personal photos will result in the loss of your credential.”
One unverified horror circulated among the media that a friend of Pizzi’s, a reporter who had known him since his teenage years, stopped him to take a photo together and an eagle-eyed mixed zone patrol officer marched over and snipped his accreditation pass from around his neck with a pair of scissors.
There were too many roundabout conversations, stewards who thought they were fully-fledged police officers without guns, to say the tournament was especially well-organised. As for the games themselves, the goals began to flow in the second round of group games as the tournament opened out. Perhaps the first set of matches happened too close to the end of the club season, with players not yet mentally set for the rigours of the Copa América.
Brazil flexed their muscles against Haiti in their next game but even at the time there was a sense that it was not an indicator of how their tournament would go. Their 7-1 victory served as a reminder of their humiliation by Germany in the 2014 World Cup.
The Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho was the key man but, despite his quality, he is not a player who makes the difference game in, game out, and that is one of Brazil's problems. Neymar aside, there are no more Ronaldos, Romarios, Pelés or Garrinchas. There is still quality, just not the kind of quality that opponents gape at and applaud.
Coutinho ended up with a hat trick here, while Renato Augusto scored twice. Haiti were poor opposition, not creating a chance until 41 minutes had passed, but James Marcelin did score in the second half, firing home after an Alisson parry, a moment of pride for the team's fans who had expected a beating without reply, and it was the highlight of their Copa América.
Unless you were wearing yellow-tinted glasses, this game meant nothing more for Brazil than three points which they were always expected to take. A sterner test would be the durable Peru in their final group match. Dunga's team for that game showed he was reacting to demands on him to move the focus on the team away from resilience and towards creativity, but it was too little, too late – and he reneged on it after half-time anyway, fatally for Brazil.
Dunga replaced the suspended Casemiro with the attacking midfielder Lucas Lima instead of the expected pick Walace, who plays as an anchor man. Many approved of the decision to start Lima, wearing No 10 at this tournament, not least Rivaldo. "Yesterday I felt great sadness when watching Brazil's game and I saw that the No 10 was on the substitutes' bench," wrote the legendary attacker after the Ecuador game.
While one of the biggest controversies of the tournament eventually eliminated Brazil, there was little unfair about their knock-out. They had not done enough against either Peru or Ecuador, the two sides to reach the quarter-finals, to merit progression. In this clash, despite picking an attacking starting side, Dunga decided after half-time to hold back, with a draw enough to send Brazil through. They paid the price. And after their fortuitous escape against Ecuador, there was a sense of balance after this latest controversy.
Raúl Ruidíaz was the man who quite literally punched Brazil out of the Copa América. Andy Polo fired the ball across the goalmouth in the 75th minute and Ruidíaz handled it into the net. Nearly four minutes of debate ensued, with Brazil furious. Andrés Cunha and his assistant discussed the issue among themselves, with the Uruguayan referee also turning to a mystery third party via his earpiece, which added further confusion. Who was he talking to? And if it was someone with access to a replay, then how was the goal eventually awarded?
The last time Peru beat Brazil in the Copa América was in 1975, when they went on to win the tournament. Their run ended in the quarter-final this year, coming up against Colombia who bungled their final group match against Costa Rica to finish second and be drawn against the Group B winners.
Brazil went home, licking their wounds after their earliest Copa América exit for 29 years. Asked if he was afraid of being sacked from his position for the second time, Dunga said: "There is only one thing I fear and that’s death." One day later, he had been shown the door. While the main aim for the country was Olympic gold, being knocked out in the group stage was one humiliation too far.
After losing to Colombia in their opening game, it was unthinkable that the USA would top Group A. Based on their own uninspired display and the strength their opponents had showed, Klinsmann’s side seemed like they had a fight on their hands to finish second. The general opinion was the German had to make changes to freshen up a stale side. The defence was looking decent, but the midfield of Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya was ineffective against Colombia and only Clint Dempsey showed signs of life in the front three, with Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood invisible.
But Klinsmann, who said he was “absolutely OK with the performance” and that “there was no difference [between the teams] besides the two goals”, picked the same XI again. Maybe there was an element of stubbornness in the decision, but it paid off as they romped past Costa Rica. Dempsey again was the star, at 33 still as potent and shark-like in front of goal as ever.
After Wood was pushed over by Cristian Gamboa in the area, the former Fulham and Tottenham forward slotted home the penalty, his 50th international goal. Dempsey created the second goal too, surging through Costa Rican lines before sprinting away from a defender, with the ball sitting nicely for Jones to run onto it and curl home.
Wood, “the Hawaiian Messi” according to one fan's sign, netted the third after Dempsey fed him, before the substitute Graham Zusi fired home to seal an emphatic and deserved 4-0 win which restored confidence both among the players and the fans. They carried that into the final game against Paraguay, a shoot-out to see who would qualify with Colombia.
Klinsmann demanded his men go out there and "rock it" and after a slow start, Dempsey fired home neatly to put his team in a strong position. However an idiotic red card for DeAndre Yedlin — for two bookings in the space of a minute early in the second half — forced the USA to grind out a result, which they duly did.
Brad Guzan made some good stops in the second half as Paraguay, who have done well in recent Copas, pushed for the equaliser but a mature display from Klinsmann's team saw them negotiate the danger well, surviving six minutes of added time. The Paraguay coach Ramón Diaz quit after the team was eliminated, suggesting again that for all the doubts, there was a significance to this Copa.
In Copa América competitions the final round of group games are not played simultaneously, which can lead to dead ties, but with Colombia knowing they needed to get a point against Costa Rica to top the group, the match developed into a bona fide thriller.
The Colombia coach Jose Pékerman rang the changes, gambling on his reserves winning the game which would leave his first-team fresh for the quarter-final. But los Ticos, who until then had let themselves down, decided now was their time to make a stand. Pékerman rolled the dice, making 10 changes, and lost.
Even a draw would have been enough to finish first, but Costa Rica emerged 3-2 winners. Pékerman's decision was not necessarily a bad one, though. It was a hot, sweaty evening in Houston, Texas, so saving his best men from featuring in that before their quarter-final clash seemed sensible. He also protected them from injuries, while giving the lesser-used players match fitness. And while he didn't know it at the time, finishing second wasn't going to pit them against Brazil. Though these days that shouldn’t scare anybody.
By the end of the group stage, Chile had started to set themselves straight, although there was little evidence they would go on such a rip-roaring surge to victory. They smuggled a 2-1 win over Bolivia in the second group game, with a cheap 100th-minute penalty converted by Vidal for his second of the game, either side of Jhasmani Campos’s sublime free-kick equaliser.
Chile made several chances but Alexis, Fabián Orellana — who can’t produce for his country, despite his fine club form with Celta Vigo, the inverse of Eduardo Vargas and Jean Beausejour — and Mauricio Pinilla were wasteful. Bolivia offered little but aggression yet the clock was whittling down the eight minutes added on with the score at 1-1, when the referee Jair Marrufo decided the ball striking the back of Luis Gutiérrez's shoulder in the box was an offence worthy of a penalty. It was reminiscent of some of the fortunate decisions la Roja received on home soil in 2015. Vidal didn't mess around and Chile put three points on the board. They followed that up with a rampaging 4-2 win over Panama to seal their place in the quarter-finals where they faced Mexico. Argentina saw off Bolivia with ease to top the group, with Messi making another flair-speckled cameo from the bench, setting up a tie against Venezuela.
It was very nearly the other way around, but for a late Mexico equaliser from Jesus Tecatito Corona, dancing round defenders before firing home to ensure their 22-game unbeaten streak stayed intact and they topped Group C. Venezuela had taken the lead through Jose Manuel Velazquez and seemed good value for the win, until Corona's individual magic finally beat the heroic Dani Hernandez.
Although Mexico had shown flaws, they also seemed like a side that could win the trophy. This was effectively a home tournament. Tens of thousands of their fans supported the team at each of their games and it was no surprise, given millions of Mexicans live in the USA.
On one hand they were the best-supported side at the tournament, with passionate followers singing, chanting, partying and smashing Donald Trump piñatas, and on the other, the worst, as was shown against Chile in the quarter-final.
Usually the Gold Cup is Mexico’s main focus, but this year they brought a virtually full-strength squad to the Copa América. Under Osorio they had won every game until the draw with Venezuela, nine in a row, beating their longest clean sheet streak and previous best unbeaten run.
So when they faced off against Chile, many pegged them as favourites to progress.
It was Dempsey again who inspired the USA as they beat Ecuador to reach the semi-final, with the Seattle Sounders forward enjoying himself in his club side's city, considered the hotbed of American soccer. More than 50,000 fans roared him on and the victory meant they had hit Klinsmann's initial goal for the tournament - although he later retracted it. At one stage the Texan was arguably the player of the tournament, even if Messi and Vidal eventually overtook him. Officially the award went to Alexis.
Ecuador have some strong players, particularly in wide areas, but always struggle to go deep in competitions and that was the case again. Dempsey headed home the first goal and then set up Gyasi Zardes for the second. Antonio Valencia and Jermaine Jones were both sent off after the break, but despite Michael Arroyo's strike creating a hectic finale, the USA held on.
It was a good performance from the hosts, another level-headed showing, although bookings for Bedoya and Wood meant they would miss the semi-final along with Jones. After Klinsmann had made a concerted effort to restrain his tinkering, he was forced to change it drastically.
Colombia joined the USA in the semi-finals after they made hard work of getting past Peru. Only good work from David Ospina and the terrible nerves of Christian Cueva helped Los Cafeteros progress after a goalless 90 minutes at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Peru played aggressively and on the counter attack, with the referee Patricio Loustau's lenient officiating playing into their hands. There had been 19 fouls by half-time and no bookings. Colombia were drawn into the scrappier side of the game and it slowly broke down and headed for penalties.
Ospina made a fine save in stoppage time from Christian Ramos, before hacking away Miguel Trauco's penalty and watching Cueva balloon his high over the crossbar. As poor as this match was, the carnival atmosphere outside did credit to both nations, but especially the perennial party animals in yellow.
The next day, Messi started his first game and inspired Argentina to victory, but not before Venezuela enjoyed a period of play which will live long in their country’s memory, when they had the Albiceleste on the rocks.
That the Vinotinto had come this far at all was a success story, when in December the team had threatened to mutiny. The players signed an open letter to the country's football federation saying they would quit unless things changed. They were fed up with the coach Noel Sanvicente, but also angry that the president of the Venezuelan FA had accused them of conspiring to get him fired through poor performances.
The former goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel subsequently took over and he has inspired the team, as well as being thoroughly entertaining in his press conferences. "If I didn't have faith that we could win, I would have gone to Disneyland instead," he said, ahead of the Argentina clash. And what's more, on another day his team might have won.
Higuaín gave Argentina the lead after Messi set him up with a stunning lofted through-ball, but then Venezuela surged into the game. Rondón was inches away from scoring as he leapt for the ball but couldn't make contact, while Romero needed to put a dangerous header from his team-mate Gabriel Mercado behind.
Higuaín got a second after a woeful backpass from Arquímedes Figuera, who was also lucky not to give away a penalty for a foul on Messi, but still Venezuela came. Rondón forced a brilliant save out of Romero before arcing a header against the post. Romero had a cracking match but then conceded a penalty for a foul on Josef Martínez. Luis Manuel Seijas attempted a Panenka, but Romero read his intention and stood still to catch the ball and humiliate the Venezuelan.
That was the end. Hope was gone, and Messi struck after a one-two with Gaitán to make it 3-0. Rondón added a consolation before Messi set up Érik Lamela for the fourth. The stadium announcer declared Higuaín the man of the match, before realising his error. "Correction to the man of the match, No 10, Lionel Messi," he said hastily.
Venezuela didn't deserve the punishment Messi wrought, but at least exited the tournament with their heads held high. Which is much more than can be said of Mexico and their supporters.
The “Puto” cry certainly didn’t originate during the Chile game. But its continued use, in the wake of the hideous massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando a few days earlier, stood out as particularly despicable. Embarrassingly some Mexican fans started using it against their own goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa, too.
“Puto” is an offensive word for homosexual. A considerable number of Mexican fans had been yelling it at goal-kicks for opposing teams throughout the tournament and for several years before1. It made it hard to feel sorry for the 70,000 or so El Tri supporters crammed into the Levi’s to see their team dismantled as Chile trounced them 7-0. Many flocked after the score hit five.
This was the perfect storm of la Roja playing extremely well and Mexico playing extremely badly. Even at 3-0 it was a magnificent, intense display from Chile. “This is the performance of the tournament so far,” said the writer Tim Vickery, well before Pizzi’s team made it obvious by ratcheting up the scoreline.
Alexis Sánchez played his best game of the tournament. Then again, so did most Chile players. Having shipped five goals in the three group games, more than any other side that reached the quarter-finals, suddenly everything came good. Even Bravo, who, if you were feeling particularly mean-spirited, could be said to have been at least partially at fault for each of the goals conceded by his team up to this point.
This was Chile's joint biggest Copa América victory, equalling their triumph over Venezuela in 1979. Eduardo Vargas scored four, following on from the two he notched against Panama, while a brace from Edson Puch and one from Alexis completed the scoresheet.
A lot of Chile's joy came from the running of Alexis and Mexico's fear about what the Arsenal man was going to do, with the defence pulled to and fro by his runs, allowing Vargas more space and time to finish. "It hurt our soul," said Javier Hernández afterwards. The referee's too, apparently, given he didn't bother adding on any stoppage time.
"I want to ask forgiveness from the Mexican people," pleaded Osorio, but although there was some clamour to sack him, the players backed him to stay and stay he shall.
Although this one result isn't the be-all-and-end-all regarding Conmebol against Concacaf, it showed up the gap between them, along with the USA's pummelling at the hands of Argentina in the semi-final. However, teams from North and Central America can only improve if they get to play quality opponents more frequently. Likewise, the South American sides appreciated the chance to play competitively in front of North American audiences, which will certainly be good for their marketing departments.
However, the idea of permanently combining the Gold Cup and the Copa América is not that appetising. For one, it punishes the smaller nations in Concacaf, who will never get the chance to play catch-up. Secondly, the lure of cold, hard cash would dictate that it was played in North America a lot of the time, if not every time. That would be a real shame, since one of the joys of the Copa is the flavour added by the host country. Of course the US has plenty of character, but it exists outside the Copa and does not intertwine with it.
What happened was not surprising but at least the method of delivery still amazed. With Argentina 1-0 up thanks to Ezequiel Lavezzi’s strike, Messi stood over a free-kick, over 25 yards out. Guzan dared him to place it in the left-hand side of the net, leaving a massive space. But the No 10 had no interest in playing games with the goalkeeper. He launched his shot into the top right corner, an effort that somehow seemed to dip into the net while always rising.
The goal, one of Messi’s finest in an Argentina shirt, and potentially his last, took him above Gabriel Batistuta to the head of his country’s all-time top scorers list. Higuaín struck twice to finish off the 4-0 rout — it really was a rout, with the USA failing to have a single shot as Argentina reached their third major final in three years. Third time lucky? More like things happen in threes.
As for the USA, somehow they had managed to achieve an impressive semi-final finish, without actually achieving anything at all. They played two teams who were better than them, Colombia and Argentina, and lost both times before being defeated again by Colombia in the third-place play-off, while they beat the sides they were roughly equal to or better than, in Ecuador, Paraguay and Costa Rica.
Despite heading to the airport on three hours sleep, I was looking forward to covering Colombia v Chile, the second semi-final. Unlike Argentina-USA, which always threatened to be an uneven game, no matter the will-power and bravado of the hosts, no matter how much they believed they would win, or chanted it, this one was sure to be a close battle.
I had a 10am flight with United from Houston to Chicago. The day before the game there had been severe weather warnings, with some even predicting tornados in Illinois, but like Pizzi, I didn't really take them seriously. "Meteorologists can be wrong too," he said. “Silly meteorologists,” I thought.
And yet at 9am in George Bush International, I received a notification on my phone telling me my flight had been cancelled. The goal.com journalist Sam Lee had been in Houston too and taken the 7am to Chicago which went without a hitch. I whatsapped him. "No sign of a storm," he said.
The help desk decided the best thing to do would be to send me to Columbus, Ohio, where I could catch another flight to Chicago. That would get me to the airport at around 6.20pm, with kick off at 7. There's no way I could make the start but, having checked with the venue's press officer, someone would be there to let me in even if I was late.
So to Columbus, where the new flight to Chicago was cancelled because of a mechanical fault. That was it. There was no way of making it in time for the game. United, giving up essentially, transferred me to American Airlines, who had a flight going out at half-nine. Too late for the game but at least I could make use of the accommodation I'd booked and spend a couple of days in Chicago before heading to New Jersey for the final. Until that flight was cancelled because of inclement weather too. "You'll have to stay in Columbus overnight," they said, not especially apologetically.
I ended up watching the game in an airport bar, writing a match report over a beer and a burger. The first half of the game at least, because they were shutting the place down for the night. Worried about missing the start the second half, I impatiently waited for the shuttle to the hotel the airline had arranged. There was no need to fear. The threatened storm finally rolled in. "Dangerous weather is approaching. Seek shelter immediately," read ominous messages displayed on the jumbotrons as fans headed inside. The half-time break ended up lasting two and a half hours.
On the Spanish-language channel Univision the presenters had to find a way to kill the time and ended up doing an amusing mock analysis of the formation of the hordes of pitch sweepers, who were out brooming excess water off the playing surface after the electrical storm had subsided.
Chile had virtually killed the game in the first half anyway, with an opening period in which they sucker-punched Colombia not once but twice. Picking up right where they left off against Mexico, Aránguiz fired home in the seventh minute after good work from José Pedro Fuenzalida, one of Chile's stars of the tournament. The right-midfielder then scored the second himself, firing home after Alexis's strike bounced back off the upright.
With Carlos Bacca injured and Barcelona’s Bravo back to his best between the sticks, Colombia were done. Carlos Sánchez made sure of it a few minutes after the restart, with a late tackle on Aránguiz earning him a second booking.
Messi wasn’t having the best of times with aeroplanes either. He posted a picture of himself looking angry with Agüero while sitting on a plane, on his social networks, along with the caption: "Once again waiting on a plane to leave for our destination. What a disaster the AFA are, for god's sake!" While it is acknowledged he has not had the best of relationships with Argentina’s football governing body, this was an explicit attack on them, which he stepped forward to speak about before the final.
"After the final, I’ll explain why I wrote what I wrote and all my thoughts about it. What’s going on in the AFA has not affected us,” he said on the Friday before Sunday’s final. “What we’re asking for is minimal. To travel and to rest properly. Things have been going on for a while now and we haven’t said anything.”
That the AFA is a mess goes far beyond travel cock-ups. They were even threatening to withdraw from the Copa América at the end of May after the Argentinian government suspended the federation's presidential elections, because of fraud allegations. Then, two days before the final, Fifa announced they were stepping in to take control of the AFA and were electing an emergency panel to the do the job, because of the financial irregularities.
So you can see why Messi was thinking about quitting. The world’s best player was fed up of being badly handled by an organisation in disarray. With this Copa his greatest chance of winning a trophy with Argentina, why not retire from international football afterwards, win or lose? A South American side has never triumphed in Europe, and the World Cup field will be stronger than this Copa.
Not as loved as he should be in his home country, perhaps because he left at the age of 13 to join Barcelona and therefore isn’t seen as a man of the people, like a Diego Maradona, or a Carlos Tévez, Messi was sick of being blamed for the team’s failures. Even the likes of Maradona have a bipolar relationship with the star. One day he accuses Messi of having no leadership qualities, lacking personality and character, while the next he desperately urges him to reconsider his retirement.
Not all Argentines are happy to see Messi go, with various campaigns started to get him to come back. #NoTeVayasLio was one of the more popular ones, "Don't go, Lio", with those words even featuring on a train arrivals board on the Buenos Aires metro. But for every fan who appreciates Messi’s genius, win or lose, there is another who curses his name in frustration at yet another near miss.
And this time it was Messi who missed. Not Higuaín, like in the World Cup final or in the shoot-out at last year’s Copa, although some still looked to blame him after he spurned Argentina’s best opportunity during the final, before he was substituted.
Although the Messi story wiped out any chance of Chile getting the credit they deserved for winning back-to-back tournaments, their penalty hero, Francisco Silva, gets the final say. Asked before the tournament what the difference was between Sampaoli and Pizzi, he joked: "The difference is fundamentally their height and their hair."
Pizzi, 6ft 1in with long, flowing locks. Sampaoli, 5ft 8in and bald. Now both have Copa América trophies.