SANTIAGO: Not just the Copa America will end when Argentina and Chile meet in the final on Saturday.
So will decades of disappointment for the champions at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago.
Hosts Chile have never won the title in the Copa’s 99-year history.
Argentina have gone 22 years without lifting a major trophy. The winners will celebrate an historic achievement. The losers 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 has yet to give his national team much reason to celebrate.
If Messi can finally lead his team to the title, he will be silencing many of the critics who say he has never played as well with the national team as he does with his club.
Argentina haven’t won a significant trophy since the 1993 Copa America, when Messi was only six years old. Since then, they have failed in seven Copa Americas and six World Cups, with Messi playing in five of those tournaments. The playmaker helped Argentina’s U-23s win the Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but he still has nothing to show when it comes to the senior squad.
Meanwhile, Chile captain and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo said his team will not try to man-mark Messi out of the Copa America final but will concentrate on playing their own quick-fire passing game.
Bravo knows Messi well from their past season together at Barcelona and acknowledged the Argentine would be difficult to stop in the high-profile decider.
“It’s not easy, given Leo’s ability. If you look at what he’s done in his career, it’s been incredible, but we’re not going to put a man on him for the 90 minutes of the match,” Bravo told a news conference at Chile’s training camp in Santiago.
“He’s not the only one playing. We have to worry about Argentina as a whole, not just Leo.”
Saturday’s tie will bring Bravo face to face with another Barcelona team-mate — Argentine defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano.
“It’s a privilege to play against two of my club team-mates. I hope they don’t play like they often do for my club team,” Bravo joked.
“Javier is the heart of the side, and they [Argentina] have a great team — not just Leo and Javier, they have a lot of great players.”
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 was eliminated in the quarter-finals 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 quarter-finals.
“We are stubborn,” 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 a 15th Copa America, tying Uruguay as the tournament’s most successful team.
Argentina are brimming with confidence after trouncing Paraguay 6-1 in the semi-finals, 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 the event has given them the best chance yet to break through for a major championship.
“For a lot of people, it would be enough to have reached the final,” said Bravo, Chile’s most experienced player ever with nearly 100 caps. “What could be better than winning the Copa America playing at home?”
Chile have one of their best generations of players.
Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli leads a team including Juventus team-mates 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.
They are keen to rub out memories of four previous runners-up finishes, 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 have the tournament’s best offence with 13 goals in five matches. The defence 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, who defeated 10-man Peru in the semi-finals, will be without defender Gonzalo Jara, who was suspended from the tournament after provoking Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani by poking his behind in the quarter-final.
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.