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LIONEL MESSI has never played with so much freedom. Throughout the 2021 Copa America, he has been seen zipping around Brazilian football fields in an Argentina shirt, entertaining the masses from empty stadiums.
Playmaker, midfielder, striker, winger, false nine, inside forward and now passionate leader: Messi can do it all.
He has the most assists in the Copa America so far with five, and tops the goalscoring charts with four. Argentina have scored 11 goals and Messi has contributed to nine of them.
He’s been running off the last defender, lofting passes over the top, playing inventive through-balls in tight spaces, dribbling around entire defences and has even scored two penalties — one against Bolivia and another when he stepped up first in the semi-final shoot-out versus Colombia.
He’s also been casually securing his status as one of the best free-kick takers of all time, scoring two at the tournament so far.
One of those came in the quarter-final against Ecuador. Having already assisted two goals, he lined up the free-kick, meticulously placing the ball on the turf before blasting it across the goalkeeper into the far corner.
That particular strike was about power, but the one against Chile in the group stage combined that power with precise placement — the type he’s regularly seen scoring for Barcelona.
The extra liberty about Messi’s game may partly be due to him being a free agent. Even though he’s widely expected to continue at Barcelona, his contract there has now expired.
As it stands, Messi is an Argentina player and nothing more.
In 2016, after losing to Chile on penalties for the second Copa America final in a row, Messi announced his retirement from international football but soon went back on his decision.
Last year, in a similar turn of events, Messi announced that he intended to leave Barcelona, but in the end, decided to stay until the end of the season.
Messi’s realisation that he has the power to decide his future at both international and club level, and especially now his contract with Barcelona has expired, may have lifted some of the weight off his shoulders.
Even at 34 years old he’s still heavily relied upon by Argentina and Barcelona whenever he takes to the field for either, but now seems to be enjoying his football more than ever.
Though he is focused and driven, he also appears less weighed down by expectation or external pressure.
The same could be said of Neymar for Brazil. Messi’s former Barcelona teammate is the player who was supposed to bring a Champions League trophy to Paris Saint-Germain and continue Brazil’s success in international tournaments, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
Previously, the responsibility of carrying the hopes of such a large football-mad nation would get to Neymar and, as a result, he could even be detrimental to his team’s success as he tried to do everything all of the time.
But at this tournament, the 29-year-old has more assists (3) than he has goals (2), and is more trusting of his teammates to help him get the job done.
Like Messi, Neymar is yet to win a major trophy (World Cup or Copa America) for his national team.
He was part of Brazil’s gold medal-winning team at the 2016 Olympics, though, and this was considered a major achievement back home, especially as it was the first time they’d won that tournament.
In another parallel between the two, Messi also won Olympic gold, in 2008, but major honours for both have been confined to club level.
Brazil are the most successful side in the history of the World Cup, but haven’t managed to win it in the Neymar era. What’s more, when Brazil did win the previous Copa America in 2019, Neymar was absent through injury.
In that 2019 tournament, there was the sense that some of the weight of expectation had been lifted in Neymar’s absence, but they are a much more dangerous outfit with a fully focused Neymar in their side, as has been evident this summer.
Though Neymar and Messi appear to be enjoying international football more than they have at other stages in their career, both will be desperate to win the final and this has the potential to ramp up the tension again.
It could well be a game in which both Neymar and Messi shine. Regardless of each player’s mindset so far, this is a high-pressure match that could go some way to defining their legacies at this level.
It’s a meeting of two football giants and two nations who’ve produced the greatest players of all time.
It’s a showcase final that could mean this tournament – which has been marred by hosting issues, political unrest and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s botched handling of Covid – is defined on the pitch rather than off it.
It’s a meeting of two of the world’s most naturally gifted players on their home continent’s biggest stage.
Brazil go into the final, which kicks off in the early hours of tomorrow morning UK time, as the favourites and the better team.
They are built on the solid foundations laid by their impressive head coach, Tite. But even though Argentina are rougher around the edges, they boast the best player in the world and a number of players also capable of stepping up in key moments.
Though there is another high-profile final between two storied football nations taking place at Wembley this weekend, a meeting between Brazil and Argentina in their own continent’s showcase takes some beating.
The writing of the next chapters in the football stories of Messi and Neymar makes it a Copa America final not to be missed.
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