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Argentina braces for tough campaign despite favourites tag

Reigning World and defending Copa America champions face Canada in the opener

Argentina braces for tough campaign despite favourites tag

Argentina team will look to defend its Copa América title

CHENNAI: Three years ago, at the storied Maracana, Brazil rolled out a crimson carpet for its arch-rivals Argentina in the Copa America final. A solitary strike from Angel Di Maria etched Argentina's fifteenth Copa America title into history, marking Lionel Messi's long-awaited grasp of a senior international trophy with his beloved national team.

Under the guidance of head coach Lionel Scaloni, a rejuvenated Argentina side claimed their first major trophy since 1986. A generation of youngsters, who grew up watching Messi's heartbreaks in the 2014 World Cup final against Germany, and the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals versus Chile, pledged unwavering allegiance. They vowed to stand as one, even to the brink of war, should Messi call.

Emiliano Martinez watched the 2018 World Cup as a fan, driven by a vow to ascend to Argentina's starting goalkeeper position by the 2022 World Cup tournament. Enzo Fernandez, a flourishing midfielder from Buenos Aires, wrote a heartfelt letter to his idol Messi in 2016, following Messi's decision to temporarily retire from international duty after successive final disappointments. And at just 24 years of age, Julian Alvarez has now adorned himself with trophies both for his club and his nation. Yet, when first called up to the national team, he asked his idol Messi for a picture during the sparring sessions. These narratives weave together among countless others—testaments of young Argentine footballers shaped by Messi's tearful tribulations in the Albiceleste jersey.

During Copa America 2021, amidst the persistent specter of the Covid-19 pandemic, stadiums sat under partial occupancy, and players endured over 50 days of isolation from their loved ones and the outside world. This crucible forged a bond that resonates to this day—a unity forged in adversity.

Ten days prior to the final, Martinez's wife had given birth to their child. Rather than returning home to see his newborn daughter, Martinez chose to remain steadfastly by his teammates' side. "Emiliano is here, foregoing the chance to meet his newborn daughter, to stay with us," said Messi in his famous speech before the final.

After a grueling 90 minutes of football, Messi sank to his knees, overcome with emotions, as the referee's final whistle confirmed a hard-fought 1-0 triumph over Brazil.

Over the past three years, Messi has conquered every trophy with the national team. There will be no more disappointments for Messi wearing the national jersey—these players embody a bond forged by love and determination, a unity not easily severed. As Messi steps onto the field for the Copa America on Thursday, it marks yet another opportunity to witness greatness.

"It's like everything has changed, yet nothing has changed," Messi said in an interview earlier this month. It would be no surprise if the 8-time Ballon d'Or winner and Argentina go all the way in the Copa America this year.

"We Argentines are too melancholic, already thinking about the day when he is gone while he’s still playing," said Lionel Scaloni to Telemundo Sports earlier this week regarding Messi.

Jayantho Sengupta
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