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Messi, Argentina out to retain Copa crown

Lionel Messi, Argentina celebrate Copa America Lionel Messi, Argentina celebrate - The Canadian Press

How things have changed in short order for Argentina.

The Albiceleste entered the 2021 Copa America hoping to capture the South American championship for the first time in nearly three decades and help ensure that Lionel Messi’s illustrious career didn’t end without any international honours. Flash-forward to three summers later and not only does Argentina head into the 2024 Copa America as the defending champions, they’re also the World Cup holders, having won world football’s greatest prize in Qatar in 2022. The burning question quickly shifted from “Will Messi ever win a trophy with Argentina?” to “How many more will he win before he retires?”

Return of the champs

ContentId(1.1666473): Copa America Final: Argentina 1, Brazil 0

The 36-year-old Messi will be front and centre again at Copa as he leads Argentina’s defence in Group A against Canada, Chile and Peru, but Lionel Scaloni’s squad in the United States won’t be a carbon copy of the team that lifted the World Cup Trophy in Doha 18 months ago.

Emi Martinez is Argentina’s No. 1 and he’s No. 1 with a bullet. The Aston Villa goalkeeper is brash and confident and backs up his bravado on the pitch. Martinez, who made the 10-bell save on France’s Randal Kolo Muani in the dying seconds of extra time in the World Cup final to send it to penalties where he starred in the win, just led Villa to a place in the Champions League for the first time ever. Ajax’s Geronimo Rulli will also be on the squad, as will veteran Franco Armani of River Plate, who is the only Argentina-based player on the team. But there is no room for Paulo Gazzaniga. The former Tottenham Hotspur man backstopped Girona to a third-place finish in La Liga this past season and their first ever spot in the Champions League.

At the back, Scaloni will have much of the defensive corps that he had in Qatar. Manchester United hardman Licha Martinez has recuperated from a series of injuries that limited him to only 11 Premier League games this past season. He can form an effective partnership in the centre of defence with Spurs’ Cristian Romero, who starred at the 2022 World Cup. Sevilla’s Marcos Acuna and set-piece maestro Nahuel Molina of Atletico are likely Scaloni’s first choices at the full-back positions. Also on the squad are Benfica veteran Nicolas Otamendi, Gonzalo Montiel of Nottingham Forest, Lyon’s Nicolas Tagliafico and German Pezzella of Real Betis, with all four returning from Qatar. Lucas Martinez Quarta, who was on the last Copa squad but not at the World Cup, returns. Making their major tournament debuts are Brighton’s 19-year-old Valentin Barco and Leonardo Balerdi of Marseille.

The Premier League will be well-represented in the midfield with a trio of England-based players in Liverpool’s Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernandez of Chelsea and Spurs’ Giovanni Lo Celso, who returns to the fold after missing the World Cup through injury. They’re joined by Leandro Paredes of Juventus, Guido Rodriguez of Betis, Atleti’s Rodrigo De Paul and Bayer Leverkusen’s Exequiel Palacios, who is coming off of an undefeated season with the Bundesliga champions.

But trusted veteran Papu Gomez won’t be patrolling the midfield for Scaloni. Last summer, Gomez joined promoted Serie A side Monza on a free transfer from Sevilla. After just three matches played, Gomez received a two-year ban from all competitions for failing a doping test. At 34, it’s conceivable that Gomez has played his final match in an Argentina shirt. Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada, who became the first-ever active MLS player to win a World Cup, is the other member of the team from Qatar who won’t be at Copa.

Among those left out of Scaloni’s midfield are Southampton’s Carlos Alcaraz, who spent the season on loan at Juve, impressive Brighton teenager Facundo Buonanotte, who received his first cap in the spring and 22-year-old Alan Varela, who settled into his first season of European football quite nicely at Porto.

Messi's last stand?

ContentId(1.1666477): How Lionel Messi finally won a trophy with Argentina

Up front, this is still very much Messi’s team, but the question is for how much longer? The only person who has the answer to that is the 36-year-old Messi himself and his word isn’t exactly his bond. Let’s explain.

In the afterglow of the triumph in Qatar in December of 2022, Messi stated that he was done with the World Cup. Qatar was the last time he would suit up at international football’s premier competition…but there was a caveat he threw in there that didn’t get reported as much as the declaration of impending international retirement.

"I think not,” Messi told Chinese outlet Titan Sports when asked about playing in the 2026 edition to be co-hosted by Canada, the US and Mexico. “[Qatar] was my last World Cup. I'll see how things go, but as it is right now, no, I won't go to the next World Cup."

How things are going right now for Messi is great. Messi has been an absolute revelation in MLS, scoring 23 goals in 27 appearances for Inter Miami across two seasons and leading the Herons to their first-ever trophy in winning the inaugural Leagues Cup last year. Barring the unforeseen, there’s no reason to believe that Messi’s play would experience the kind of steep decline over the next two years that would preclude him from appearing in World Cup 2026.

The other reason why it’s not a great idea to heed Messi’s pronouncements about his international future is because they tend to be made in the heat of the moment.

To wit, at the 2016 Copa, Argentina played to a scoreless draw with Chile in the final and ultimately fell 4-2 on penalties. Messi, along with Lucas Biglia, missed their spot kicks in the loss. He was entirely disconsolate after the match, having lost three Copa finals in the last four tournaments and the 2014 World Cup final to Germany. He was a defeated man.

"For me, the national team is over," Messi said after the match in announcing his international retirement. “I've done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion. It's been four finals [losses], I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn't get it, so I think it's over.”

Messi’s retirement would last for exactly 47 days as he rejoined the Albiceleste in time for August World Cup qualifiers.

So, this brings us back to the 2024 Copa. Will this be the last major tournament that Messi plays in for Argentina? It’s absolutely possible. But don’t count on the allure of defending the World Cup in 2026 being something that the greatest of all-time can resist.

While this might not be it for Messi, it is a curtain call for another Albiceleste great. Last fall, Benfica’s Angel Di Maria announced that the Copa would serve as his international swansong. A Copa and World Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist with Argentina, Di Maria’s 137 appearances are fourth-most all-time and his 30 goals are the seventh-most scored in Argentina history. A seven-time league champion and Champions League winner, Di Maria is no longer a 90-minute player for the Albiceleste, but there is still some magic left in the boots of the 36-year-old winger.

Making up the rest of the forward complement are 19-year-old United winger Alejandro Garnacho, whose emergence was one of the few bright spots in a moribund Red Devils season, Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez, Fiorentina’s Nicolas Gonzalez, Atleti’s Angel Correa and Inter duo 19-year-old Valentin Carboni, who spent last season on loan at Monza, and Lautaro Martinez, who has 22 goals in 56 appearances for the Albiceleste.

The biggest snub up front is Paulo Dybala. A member of the World Cup-winning team from Qatar, Dybala had a second straight strong season at Roma where he scored 16 goals across all competitions.  With the level of firepower that Scaloni has at his disposal, Dybala’s omission appears to be a justified one.

Argentina opens up its Copa defence on June 20 when it takes on the CanMNT in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.