Argentina’s Copa America triumph has put to bed the GOAT argument – Lionel Messi is not the greatest footballer of all time, or even his time. He wasn’t even Man of the Match in the final.
The point here is not to slag off the supremely skilful player, but La Albiceleste’s 1-0 win over Brazil has proven the football discussion should never have been all about the individual.
It would be sacrilegious to suggest that Messi didn’t play a key role in Argentina ending their 28-year major trophy drought.
Yes, with four goals and five assists, he did contribute heavily in getting them there.
But by his high standards, he was anonymous in the final. In the 88th minute, he was in the clear after a lovely through ball from the dynamic Rodrigo de Paul but lost control before he could pull the trigger. Fortunately for them, the profligacy was not punished.
This is not the Messiah in a Barcelona jersey seared in our memories, but it is actually consistent with his displays on the biggest stages in international football.
Just like in the 2010 World Cup and 2007, 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals, he went missing.
But this time, his teammates didn’t – De Paul released Angel de Maria for a cute lob in the 22nd minute that proved the match winner, and the team defended stoutly for the rest of the game.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni deserves the lion’s share of the credit for daring to change five players from the line-up that beat Colombia on penalties in the semi-final, ensuring fresh legs in key areas such as on the flanks, where both full-backs were changed. And of course, Di Maria came in for Nicolas Gonzalez.
This is in stark contrast to Brazil, who stuck with the same XI who beat Peru in their semi-final.
There was an over-reliance on Neymar to conjure magic, not dissimilar to how Argentina are on Messi over the years, but this time the Brazilian talisman was heavily shackled.
Even Harry Houdini needed an assistant, and this final is proof that strong teams, and not individuals, win tournaments. Gone are the days of Pele, Diego Maradona, and most recently Zinedine Zidane, where a single superhuman can carry the team to the title.
Spain won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008 and 2012 with a collective tiki-taka effort, France got rid of internal strife and united their considerable individual strengths to lift the 2018 World Cup, while Cristiano Ronaldo was not even on the pitch when Portugal scored the winner to nick Euro 2016.
Euro 2020 will follow the same vein. Regardless of who win, Italy have shown they have trust to match the talent in their squad, with Roberto Mancini having played at this competition all 26 players except third-choice goalkeeper Alex Meret.
England are also no longer fixated on a central figurehead like David Beckham or Wayne Rooney before, and not even on Harry Kane now. Goals have been coming in from an off-form Raheem Sterling and their campaign has centred on team before self, with players producing the goods out of their natural positions.
Those from unfashionable clubs like Sassuolo (Manuel Locatelli) and Leeds United (Kalvin Phillips) can also play a part.
After the Copa America final, Messi acknowledged on Instagram the contributions of his low-profile goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, a former Arsenal bench player who saved three spot-kicks against Colombia and kept four clean sheets in eight games.
The post received four million likes in two hours, and Messi’s legacy will be enhanced by his first international trophy in 10 outings, but he knows he has his team to thank.
And as we savour some of these intriguing international football battles, perhaps it is instructive to remember this is ultimately a team sport and it can be rather pig-headed to obsess with singling out a GOAT.
-David Lee/The Straits Times