How Copa América changed Lionel Messi forever

Gigatons of pressure crashed down on Lionel Messi and, on a harrowing night in June 2016, sent the world's most galactic athlete tumbling to Earth. Nerves and stress had hounded him throughout a fractious Copa América final. They seized him during a penalty shootout, then broke him as Chileans celebrated and Argentine vitriol flew. His distraught body keeled over. His face twisted in pain. Guilt gripped him, tears dripped, and a vicious cycle accelerated anew.

This, for over a decade, was the Messi-Argentina story.

It was the devastating pattern that bound him to his country, and destroyed their all-consuming dream.

Argentines would curse him and question him: Did he care about the national team? Why did he look so unenthused? Why would he always crumble for the Albiceleste, whenever he wore white and sky blue?

Messi, in turn, would suffer. He would crumble, then cry, then puke before games, then crumble some more. He flopped in 2010. He failed in 2011. He "was destroyed," as teammate Angel Di Maria said, after falling short at the 2014 World Cup. At the 2016 Copa América, he succumbed. A third consecutive loss in a major final shattered his psyche. "It's over," he told reporters late that night in New Jersey. "The national team has ended for me."

He ultimately returned for the 2018 World Cup. But there, on the biggest stage of all, he wilted again. There, every four years, he’d bear an unbearable burden. There, with billions expectant, he’d tell this same sad story to the entire globe. Each World Cup became a new chapter; put together, an anguished narrative flowed — until a different tournament changed it forever.

It was Copa América — the quadrennial South American championship, the 48th edition of which begins next week here in the United States — that unshackled Messi in 2021, and paved his path to soccer’s summit.

After 28 barren years, Argentina finally conquered Brazil; and Messi set off toward the 2022 World Cup, his eventual coronation, with "peace of mind."

"The Copa América changed his life," Sergio Agüero, a longtime teammate and friend, told ESPN as Messi dazzled in Qatar. "It gave him life. After the Copa América, he was happy again with the national team, like when we were with the under-20s. He lived with the criticism and the lost finals for a long time. The Copa América was liberating."

Copa América liberates Messi

Messi was born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, but molded and exalted in Barcelona, Spain, 6,500 miles and many societal rungs away from home.

The distance, geographical and cultural, came to shape his complicated relationship with Argentina. On lonely Catalan nights, as a homesick teen, he'd long for the comforts of Rosario; and he'd yearn to represent his country; he wanted, "more than anyone," he'd later say, "to win a title with the national team." But as he grew, from a fiercely shy prodigy into a peerless phenom, his country grew skeptical of his otherness.

Argentines marveled at his extraterrestrial talent; but they balked at comparisons to Diego Maradona, their World Cup-winning god. Maradona was relatable, a pibe who'd risen from poverty to greatness, with flaws and brash charm. Messi, on the other hand, seemed unknowable. He played exquisitely but dispassionately. "He's more Barcelonan than Argentine," one pundit bemoaned.

They all celebrated his Barcelona accolades, his Champions League titles, his wondrous goals and Ballon d'Ors; but then they asked: What has he done for Argentina?

They heaped expectations onto his slender shoulders; and when he struggled to meet them, criticism crescendoed out of control.

It first stung Messi at the 2010 World Cup. It swamped him a year later, at a Copa América on home soil. Throughout a second consecutive group-stage draw, two hours north of his childhood home, fans whistled and booed. After a quarterfinal loss to Uruguay, Messi’s 16th straight competitive international game without a goal, they howled. They branded him a foreigner and a “failure.” And their words hurt.

The accusation that he “didn’t care about the national team,” Messi would later say, “bothered me and made me very angry.”

All of it exacerbated pressure and anxiety, which seemed to cripple him whenever he stepped onto an international stage.

"He suffered more than anybody," Agüero said in a recent documentary. "He would go to his room and lock himself up, alone, while the rest of us were having dinner."

Messi emerged for the 2014 World Cup group stage, but shrank in the knockout rounds. He contributed four goals at the 2015 Copa América, but, battered and bruised by Chile, he went silent in the final, which Argentina lost on penalties. The following summer, at a one-off Copa América Centenario in the U.S., after another 0-0 final slog, in another shootout against Chile, Messi missed his penalty, then quit the national team.

“It’s not for me,” he said.

TV commentators clearly agreed. “It’s obviously a psychological problem,” one said. “He has won it all, except here,” another added. “He can’t stand it.”

Others simply told him: “Go back to Barcelona.”

By 2020 and 2021, after early exits from the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Copa América, hate and heartbreak had mellowed into resignation. Hopes and dreams had dimmed — until another Copa América rolled around, and forged ahead without fans in Brazil amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Messi guided his team through the relocated and postponed 2021 tournament, back in Argentina, tentative optimism resurged.

And within the national team’s bubble — over 45 days separated from families and the outside world — a togetherness and a confidence formed.

Messi tapped into both as he gathered teammates in one last locker-room huddle before the final. He'd scored or assisted nine of their 11 goals en route; now, it was time for the quiet kid from Rosario to lead with his voice. Messi leaned in and delivered a rousing pregame speech.

Two hours later, he sank to his knees and burst into tears as a referee's whistle sealed a 1-0 victory over Brazil. Dozens of teammates rushed toward him and enveloped him. Minutes later, they hoisted him into the air.

"It was like a dream, a spectacular moment," Messi said. "I was gone. I couldn't believe it had happened."

When they finally got to celebrate in a quarter-full Monumental de Nuñez Stadium — after Messi scored a hat trick in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Bolivia — his eyes welled again as adoring fans sang his name.

This, he'd later say in a documentary chronicling Argentina's championship run, "was the most beautiful thing that happened to me in my sports career."

Messi, relaxed and confident, lifts Argentina at 2022 World Cup

The Copa América title vanquished demons in Argentina. It helped sustain a 36-game unbeaten run that the national team carried to Qatar. It inspired "Muchachos," the fan-written song that became Argentina's unofficial 2022 anthem. Supporters nationwide and worldwide would sing about "the finals that we lost" and "how many years I cried. But that ended," they'd chorus. "Because at the Maracanã, in the final against the Brazucas, daddy went back to beating them."

And so, “guys,” — “muchaaaaachooooos,” they’d roar — “now we’re dreaming again.”

The title also “makes us feel more relaxed,” Messi said on the eve of the World Cup. “We’re calmer, which allows us to work in a different way, without anxiety.”

Then, of course, they stumbled. They lost their opener 2-1 to Saudi Arabia. They stalked off the field in a daze. Messi sat at his locker, mirroring 46 million countrymen, his shirtless shoulders slumped, stunned. Gloom followed players from Lusail back to base camp, and at dinner, they "couldn't talk," midfielder Rodrigo De Paul later said. "We couldn't find the right words."

But when they “ended up in a room, chatting about everything,” De Paul continued, among the shell-shocked faces, he examined Messi’s and felt reassured.

"I know him," De Paul said in a documentary interview. "I know when he's OK and when he's not. And he was OK."

Messi was calm, others confirmed; all they had to do was follow their captain’s lead.

Four days later, he rescued them with a cathartic goal against Mexico. And from there, for weeks, from fields to dormitories, Messi's tranquilidad never wavered. At the team's Qatar University compound — the walls lined with celebratory pictures stemming from the Copa América victory — he seemed light and focused. He played cards and a soccer table game. He sipped maté. Ahead of a titanic quarterfinal clash with the Netherlands, he joined the recently retired Aguero on a Twitch stream full of laughter.

And then, naturally, he unlocked the Dutch with a heavenly pass; he exuded poise as he converted two penalties. He taunted his helpless opponents. He called their striker "Bobo." He smiled as he went.

"You see the happiness that Leo has," Argentine great Jorge Valdano told The Guardian that week. "He's liberated."

In the semifinal and final, he conjured more magic, the very magic that pressure once polluted. He won the World Cup, his World Cup, and rode off into the proverbial sunset.

The triumph cemented him as the GOAT, and also as a changed man. It gave him even more "peace of mind," he said months later, "knowing that, in my job, I could achieve everything."

Living in the moment

It also changed his outlook on the latter stages of his career. Messi previously said that the 2022 World Cup would "surely" be his last, but now he seems to be reconsidering. He will soon lead Argentina into another Copa América, his seventh but the first since pressure vanished. Now he is free, so he seems determined to savor every last second of it. And then?

"Time will tell whether I'll be at the [2026] World Cup or not," Messi said last year, and reiterated this month.

He prefers to avoid “thinking two or three years ahead,” because the present is so glorious; because his teammates are so genial; and because fútbol is so much fun.

"He's very calm," defender Lisandro Martinez said. "More than anything, he's enjoying the day to day."

“After suffering for so many years,” Messi said, “now that we are experiencing a special moment that I have never experienced before, I want to enjoy it to the fullest.”

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