The South American title won’t be the only thing at stake when Argentina and Chile meet in Saturday’s Copa America final.
The regional rivals have a chance to put years of disappointment behind them with triumph at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. Host Chile has never won the continental title, while Argentina has gone 22 years without lifting a major trophy.
The winner will celebrate a historic achievement. The loser will be left wondering how much longer the title drought will last.
Victory would also be extra special for Lionel Messi, who has thrived with Barcelona for years but is yet to give his national team much reason to celebrate. If Messi can finally lead his nation to the title, he will be silencing many of the critics who say that he has never played as well with the national team as he does with his club.
Argentina hasn’t won a significant trophy since the 1993 Copa America, when Messi was only 6 years old. Since then, it failed to succeed in seven Copa Americas and six World Cups, with Messi playing in five of those tournaments. The playmaker helped Argentina’s Under-23s win the Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but he still has nothing to show for when it comes to the senior squad.
Argentina came close to breaking through for a major title when it reached the World Cup final in Brazil last year, losing 1-0 to Germany in extra time. It had been eliminated in the quarterfinals both in 2006 and 2010. The Argentines lost consecutive Copa America finals to Brazil in 2004 and 2007. In the 2011 tournament at home, Argentina didn’t make it past the quarterfinals.
“We are stubborn,” Argentina defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano said. “We keep trying to win one of these championships. Hopefully it will finally happen on Saturday.”
If it does happen, Argentina will win its 15th Copa America title, tying Uruguay as the tournament’s most successful nation.
Argentina will be brimming with confidence after trouncing Paraguay 6-1 in the semifinals, when Messi didn’t score but helped set up five goals, a performance reminiscent of the ones he constantly pulls off with Barcelona.
For Chile, hosting this Copa America has given it the best chance yet to break through for a major championship, and a runner-up finish will be no compensation.
“For a lot of people it would be enough to have reached the final,” said Claudio Bravo, the Barcelona goalkeeper who is the national team’s most experienced player all-time with nearly 100 caps. “What could be better than winning the Copa America playing at home?”
Chile has one of its best generations of players. Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli is leading a team that includes Juventus teammates Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez, Napoli striker Eduardo Vargas, Inter Milan defensive midfielder Gary Medel, Fiorentina attacking midfielder Matias Fernandez and Palmeiras playmaker Jorge Valdivia.
Chile reached the round of 16 of last year’s World Cup, being eliminated by host Brazil on penalties. It is playing in its first Copa America final in 28 years. The Chileans finished runner-up four times, including at home in 1955.
“We are committed to reaching the next level,” Chile defender Eugenio Mena said. “We want to win this tournament once and for all.”
Chile has the tournament’s best offense with 13 goals in five matches. The defense hasn’t been as perfect, conceding five goals and will need to improve to keep out Argentina’s imposing array of scoring options.
“We are not afraid,” Bravo said. “The word ‘fear’ hasn’t been spoken by any of my teammates. This is something only (the media) is talking about.”
Chile, which defeated 10-man Peru in the semifinals, will be without defender Gonzalo Jara, who was suspended from the tournament after provoking Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani by poking his behind in the quarterfinals. Vidal, who crashed his car while driving drunk a day after one of the group matches, is set to play after being allowed to stay with the squad.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino may not be able to count on defender Ezequiel Garay, who has been nursing a stomach illness.