Lionel Messi put his penalty kick over the crossbar, grabbed his shirt, clenched his teeth and covered his face with both hands.
A few minutes later he walked off the field, a dazed, pained look on his bearded face. The greatest player of his generation, perhaps soccer’s best ever, he was still without a title on Argentina’s national team – one he says may never come.
“The national team is over for me,” he told the Argentine network TyC Sports after Chile beat Argentina on Sunday night for the Copa America title. “It’s been four finals, it’s not meant for me. I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over.”
Chile beat Argentina in the final for the second straight year, 4-2 in the shootout following a 0-0 tie that ended an expanded 16-nation edition in the United States to mark the championship’s 100th anniversary.
Messi, five-time FIFA Player of the Year, winner of four Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns with Barcelona, was crushed. Much of his nation had counted on him and the top-ranked Albiceleste to bring home the nation’s first major championship since 1993.
Playing two days after his 29th birthday, Messi lost a final for the third year in a row and the fourth time overall with Argentina. There was also the 2007 Copa final against Brazil, when he was still a wunderkind, and then an extra-time loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup.
Considered alongside Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona as the sport’s greatest ever, Messi won the titles at the under-20 and Olympic (under-23) levels for Argentina. But in the minds of many he needs a championship with the senior national team to solidify his place in history.
“Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they'll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a football player to do what Messi has done,” said Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who is from Argentina. “My generation can’t compare him to Maradona – that’s for my generation, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer. But I think the best player ever played today here in the United States.”
A crowd of 82,076 filled MetLife Stadium – the largest to see a soccer game in New Jersey – and many wore Messi’s No. 10 jersey in Argentina’s blue and white and Barcelona’s navy and maroon.
Francisco Silva converted the shootout finale for the fifth-ranked La Roja after goalkeeper Claudio Bravo – Messi’s Barcelona teammate – made a diving stop on Lucas Biglia’s attempt.
On an ill-tempered evening that included a first-half ejection on each side and eight yellow cards, the game was scoreless through regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, with Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain missing a clear goal-scoring opportunity for the third straight final. Argentina outshot Chile 16-4 and La Roja collapsed three, four and even five defenders around Messi, then chopped down the diminutive attacker when he tried to accelerate toward the goal.
Messi, who scored five goals in the tournament, sent a free kick that Sergio Aguero nearly headed in 10 minutes into extra time, only to have Bravo jump and extend his right hand to tip the ball over the crossbar. Messi’s free kick in extra time went off the wall.
Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved the opening kick by Arturo Vidal, and up stepped Messi, Argentina’s captain and career scoring leader with 55 goals, he sent his shot into the stands, stunning himself, both teams and the crowd.
Nicolas Castillo and Charles Aranguiz converted their kicks for Chile, and Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero made theirs, leaving the teams tied 2-2 after three rounds.
Jean Beausejour put Chile ahead, and Bravo dived to his right, saving Biglia’s shot and bringing up Silva, a 30-year-old midfielder. Messi briefly pulled his jersey of his face, as if not wanting to watch. Romero dived to his left and the shot went in to his right, giving Chile another title.
Messi crouched over, as if in pain, then got up, took off his captain’s armband and walked to the bench, where he was consoled by Angel Di Maria. After Messi came back on the field, Aguero put a hand on one of Messi’s shoulders. And new FIFA President Gianni Infantino gave Messi a pat on the back when Messi came onto the podium with his teammates for his second-place medal. Messi almost immediately took it off.
The tournament’s average crowd of 46,119 was nearly double the 25,223 in Chile last year, and attendance will be used by the U.S. Soccer Federation as justification it deserves to host a World Cup again, likely as part of a bid for the 2026 tournament.
Brazilian referee Heber Lopes became the focus in the first half, ejecting a pair of defenders: Chile’s Marcelo Diaz in the 28th minute and Argentina’s Marcos Rojo in the 43rd. After issuing six yellow cards during a World Cup qualifier between the nations in March, Lopes handed out eight yellows, including one to Messi for diving in the 40th minute, and the two reds.
Diaz got his first yellow for hacking down Messi about 28 yards out in the 16th minute, then got his second for obstructing a charging Messi about 30 yards out. Rojo received a straight red when he slid into Arturo Vidal from behind and poked away the ball, but Vidal’s leg bent awkwardly under his body as he fell.
Higuain had the best first-half chance in the 21st minute when he picked up a giveaway from Gary Medel, dribbled in and chipped the ball over Bravo only to have it roll wide of the far post. It was almost the exact time he broke in alone during the World Cup final against Germany and also shot wide. Higuain also missed a tap-in of Ezequiel Lavezzi’s cross during the final minute of regulation in last year’s final, then sent his penalty kick during the shootout over the crossbar.