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What happened at the 2021 Copa America?


Copa America 2021 wasn’t originally scheduled to be held in Brazil. It wasn’t even supposed to have been held in 2021 for that matter.

Like Euro 2020, the 2020 Copa was postponed as a consequence of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but unlike the Euro, it didn’t retain the 2020 branding. Because of the postponement, two guest participants, Australia and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, were forced to pull out of the tournament. More consequential than the postponement of the tournament was its relocation.

Copa 2020 was awarded to Colombia and Argentina as co-hosts in the spring of 2019. Only three weeks ahead of its opening, Colombia was dropped as a co-host due to security concerns following an outbreak of mass protests in late April over president Ivan Duque’s proposed tax and health care reforms. Argentina exited as co-host days later, leaving the tournament without a host with no time to spare. Hosts in 2019, Brazil stepped in to once again play host to the pared-down event – without fans present – with games played in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Cuiaba and Goiania.

While the story of staging the tournament was turmoil, another narrative of great importance became a focal point before play got underway. The future of world football’s biggest star, Lionel Messi, threatened to overshadow a Copa in which Messi himself hoped to assert his international credentials by winning a prize that had eluded him over the course of his illustrious career.

Weeks before the Copa kicked off, Barcelona finished as runners-up to Atletico in La Liga. The Blaugrana wrapped up its season on May 16 with a 2-1 loss to Celta Vigo. Messi scored the lone goal in the defeat. Nobody knew it at the time, but the goal would be the last he would score in a Barcelona shirt.

In the summer of 2020, Messi’s departure from the team he had spent the past 20 years with appeared to be likely, but a disputed contract clause calling for a €700 million buyout ensured that Messi remained at Camp Nou for a 17th La Liga campaign. His contract at Barca officially expired on July 1, 2021, in the middle of the Copa, but both parties were hopeful that Messi would stay on, provided that Barca became wage-compliant with La Liga regulations.

That never happened. On Aug. 5, Barca announced Messi would be leaving the club. Then on Aug. 11, Messi was introduced as a Paris Saint-Germain player on a two-year contract.

With his Barca tenure set to end, Messi was focused on his international resume. Having won 10 league titles, seven Copas del Rey and four Champions League crowns, Messi’s trophy cabinet was full.

But honours won while playing for Argentina were missing. Argentina hadn’t won a World Cup since 1986 and Copa since 1993. In five Copas with Messi, Argentina finished as runners-up three times. The Albiceleste just couldn’t get over the hump. While obviously still playing at a high level, Messi was aware that time was quickly becoming of the essence at 33 and, perhaps, there was some extra impetus for success with eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo finally winning his first international trophy when he claimed the Euro with Portugal in 2016.

Argentina would find themselves in a competitive Group A alongside Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. In Group B, hosts Brazil lined up against Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

The Albiceleste would finish atop the group, but not in the most convincing fashion. A 1-1 draw with Chile was followed by tight 1-0 wins over Uruguay and Paraguay before finally exploding offensively with a 4-1 win over Bolivia. Messi would lead the way in the group stage with three goals. Argentina was joined in the quarters by Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile with Bolivia’s tournament ending after an 0-4 group stage.

Over in Group B, the Selecao also finished with 10 points to top the group. After comfortable wins over Venezuela and Peru, Brazil needed a goal from Casemiro in the 10th minute of stoppage to beat Colombia, 2-1, before wrapping up the group stage with a 1-1 draw with Ecuador. Peru, Colombia and Ecuador also advanced from Group B into the quarters.

The quarters got underway with excitement as runners-up in 2019, Peru, met Paraguay in Goiania. Both teams quickly learned that Gustavo Gomez could both give and take away. From a corner the 11th minute, David Martinez’s header was turned aside by Pedro Gallese, but Gomez was on the doorstep to bundle the rebound over the line to make it 1-0 for Paraguay. Only 10 minutes later, Peru was level when Andre Carrillo’s cross for Gianluca Lapadula was turned into his own net by Gomez. Lapadula would get his goal in the 40th as Peru went up 2-1, despite protests for offside from Paraguay. Things quickly got worse for Paraguay when Gomez was sent off in first-half stoppage for picking up two quick bookings.

But 10-man Paraguay pulled level under 10 minutes into the second half. From a corner, the ball rolled to an unmarked Junior Alonso at the far post, who thumped it home to make it 2-2 in the 54th minute. There was more drama to come. In the 80th, Peru got back out in front when Victor Yodun’s low shot from distance was deflected by Robert Rojas, leaving Antony Silva absolutely powerless to stop it. As Peru was looking to close out the win, Carrillo got booked for a second time in the 85th for a late challenge to reduce both teams to 10 men. The parity proved to be the opening Paraguay needed to force extra time. In the 90th, Gabriel Avalos scored to even things at 3-3.

The extra 30 minutes solved nothing, and the game went to penalties. After both teams made their first two attempts, David Martinez and Braian Samudio skied their shots over the bar. This allowed Peru to escape with a 4-3 penalties win.

In the next quarters tie, hosts Brazil met Chile in Rio in what was a cagey affair. Perhaps the best chance of the opening half came when Claudio Bravo robbed former Manchester City teammate Gabriel Jesus after he was played in by Neymar. The lone goal of the match was scored in the 46th when an intricate Brazilian passing play was helped on by Sebastian Vegas to allow Lucas Paqueta to get in behind the Chile defence and beat Bravo to make it 1-0.

One goal would be more than Uruguay and Colombia could produce in 120 minutes in what was largely a drab affair. Late in the first half, David Ospina did make a sensational save to reach back and palm a ball out of his goal after being initially tricked by Nahitan Nandez’s looping effort. Ospina would come up big again in spot kicks, first diving to his right to deny Jose Gimenez before diving to his left to knock down Matias Vina’s effort as Colombia advanced 4-2 on penalties.

After scoring four goals in their final group-stage match, Argentina stayed hot offensively against Ecuador in the last of the four quarter-finals. Messi squandered an early chance for the Albiceleste when he was hilariously played onside yards behind the Ecuador backline by an errant back pass, but rang his effort off of the post. Messi could only laugh at his mistake.

Argentina got on the board in the 40th when Hernan Galindez came off of his line and almost out of the box entirely to stop the run of Nicolas Gonzalez. The ball fell to Messi, who crossed over to Rodrigo De Paul to tap in to the empty net to make it 1-0. The match would stay on that scoreline until the 84th when Angel Di Maria forced Piero Hincapie into a turnover and allowed Lautaro Martinez to complete a two-on-one with Messi and make it 2-0. Following his two assists, Messi got a goal of his own in the third minute of stoppage to round out the scoring at 3-0.

Both semifinal matchups were tight contests. In the opener, Brazil faced off with Peru in Rio with Gallese called into duty a number of times in the early going, turning away a pair of long-distance efforts from Casemiro. Later in the half, Gallese made back-to-back sensational stops, robbing Neymar from close range before turning aside Richarlison’s effort on the rebound.

Brazil would get their goal in the 35th. Coming down the right, Neymar drew away four markers before teeing up an unmarked Paqueta at the spot to rifle home. While Ederson was busier in the second half than he was in the first, Peru just couldn’t find an equalizer and Brazil would hang on for the victory. It would be an eighth trip to the Copa final for Brazil.

The legend of Emi Martinez would be born in the other semi as Argentina took on Colombia in Brasilia. The Albiceleste opened the scoring quickly. Played in behind the Colombia defence and with his back to goal, Messi squared a pass for Martinez to drag a low shot past Ospina to make it 1-0 in the seventh.  The match would reach halftime with the same scoreline as both Martinez and Ospina made a number of key saves. Colombia would square things up in the 61st. Luis Diaz latched onto a deep ball played into the Argentina area, held off German Pezzella and dinked over Martinez from a sharp angle to knot things up at 1-1. The rest of the 90 and an extra half-hour solved nothing, and the two teams went to penalties.

After Juan Cuadrado and Messi scored the opening penalties for their respective teams, Martinez dove to his left to stop a hard shot from Davinson Sanchez that ricocheted right back in Martinez’s face. But De Paul couldn’t take advantage of the opening provided by his keeper and rifled his shot over the bar. Yerry Mina was up next for Colombia and his effort was almost identical to Sanchez’s and it, too, was turned away by Martinez. Leandro Paredes then gave Argentina a 2-1 lead with a professional spot kick before Miguel Borja hammered his effort that gave Martinez no chance to draw back even at 2-2.

Lautaro Martinez pulled Argentina back in front, leaving it up to Edwin Cardona to force extra kicks. But for a third time, a Colombia player went low and to Martinez’s left and for a third time, Martinez was up to the challenge, parrying it away and clinching a Final berth for Argentina, 3-2 on penalties. The win sent Argentina to a sixth Copa final.

The 2021 edition played on July 10th was the third contested between Argentina and Brazil with the Selecao having won the previous two meetings in 2004 and 2007. For the final, a small number of fans were permitted behind each net to add a bit more of an atmosphere to a titanic clash between footballing bluebloods. While the game was tense, there was very little in terms of offence.

In the 22nd, it was Di Maria who would bag the game’s only goal. De Paul’s speculative ball down the left was deflected into Di Maria’s path by Renan Lodi. The PSG man dinked his shot over the oncoming Ederson to make it 1-0 as Casemiro looked on in utter despair.

A desperate Brazil looked for an equalizer in the second half. Richarlison ripped a powerful shot from close range at Martinez, who managed to palm it away while falling down in the process. Later, Vini Jr. played in Gabigol on the right side, but his shot was intercepted by a fine diving tackle by Nicolas Otamendi. From a Neymar free kick, the ball fell to Gabigol, again, whose strong effort was turned over the bar by Martinez.

Messi had a chance to ice the game late after his played in alone by De Paul, but he slipped before shooting and the ball rolled harmlessly into Ederson’s arms. Argentina wouldn’t need the goal, though, as the final whistle would blow as the Albiceleste claimed its first Copa in nearly three decades and Messi finally won his first international honour. It would not be his last.