Will Copa América Bring Argentina Its First Trophy in Decades?

Remember what you were doing 23 years ago? Beanie Babies had just been launched. Jurassic Park, Sleepless in Seattle, and Mrs. Doubtfire blew up the box office. Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love” was one of the biggest hits of the year.

And on July 4, 1993, Argentina beat Mexico 2–1 in the Copa América final in Ecuador, with two goals from Gabriel Batistuta. Coming not long after Lionel Messi celebrated his sixth birthday in the city of Rosario, it was the last time the country won a major futbol honor.

As is often the case when a soccer powerhouse enters a long, trophy-less streak (Liverpool’s 26-year English title wait springs to mind), few would have seen it coming.

Built around stars such as Daniel Passarella, Mario Kempes, Batistuta, and the great Diego Maradona, Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, reached the final in 1990, and won Copa América in 1991. The future looked bright too, with wins in five out of the seven FIFA U-20 World Cups held between 1995 and 2007.

Yet now, 23 years after that afternoon in Guayaquil, Argentina’s title drought has stretched to six World Cups and seven Copa Américas.

In the last three Copa Américas, for example, Argentina lost 3-0 to Brazil in the 2007 final in Venezuela, and was then beaten on penalties by Uruguay on home soil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 tournament. Last year in Chile, Messi and company were defeated by the host nation in the final, again on penalties.

For a country with such a rich soccer history, however, Copa América is small beer compared to the World Cup. A year after that win in Ecuador, Argentina was knocked out of the 1994 tournament in the USA in the Round of 16 by a Romania side starring Gheorghe Hagi and Ilie Dumitrescu, while in 1998, Dennis Bergkamp’s unforgettable winner for the Netherlands knocked out Daniel Passarella’s team in the quarterfinals.

For a country with such a rich soccer history, however, Copa América is small beer compared to the World Cup.

Although Argentina produced a miserable campaign four years later in South Korea and Japan, exiting the tournament in the group stage, things looked more promising in 2006 with a team led by arch midfield schemer Juan Roman Riquelme. But once again Argentina was to disappoint, losing to Germany on penalties in the quarterfinals after leading until the 80th minute. There was further disappointment in 2010, when a side chaotically coached by Maradona was thumped 4-0, again by the Germans and again in the quarterfinals.

Argentina was more organized at last year’s tournament in Brazil, where coach Alejandro Sabella sacrificed attacking flair for greater defensive diligence to take the team to the final, but the end result was the same: dejected Argentina players on their knees after the final whistle, watching the opposition celebrate jubilantly at the other end of the pitch.

By the time the next World Cup final rolls around, Javier Mascherano will be 34, Messi will be 31, and Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero 30, their bodies battered by the punishing demands of top-level club football.

It will probably be their final major tournament, if they make it that far, meaning there is a real chance this talented generation of players will hang up their boots without lifting a major international trophy.

Which has given this summer’s hastily arranged Copa América Centenario an extra level of significance for Argentina, possibly making it the final chance of international redemption for Messi (often criticized at home for failing to produce his Barcelona form in an Albiceleste shirt) and his teammates.

“This one matters for Argentina,” Messi told Sports Illustrated before the tournament. “We have nearly won our last two tournaments, reaching the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa América, but we came up just short both times…Argentina has not raised a major senior trophy of any kind since 1993, and I think it’s important that we end the streak.”

Messi and his teammates have certainly played like they mean business at Copa América Centenario.

Messi and his teammates have certainly played like they mean business at Copa América Centenario. Although coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino may not have entirely resolved the perennial doubts that surround Argentina – namely, how to blend all that attacking talent into a cohesive team system, and protect against perceived defensive frailty – this year’s edition has looked powerful and dangerous when the players have clicked, despite Messi nursing a rib injury through the early running.

A tricky 2-1 opening win over Chile was followed by comfortable wins over Panama (5-0) and Bolivia (3-0) as Argentina eased through the group stages, setting up a quarterfinal tie against a surprising Venezuela side in Foxborough on Saturday.

Ever Banega has looked lively, while there have been important contributions from the likes of Erik Lamela and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who both scored against Bolivia.

But as always, it is Messi who remains the star. His dazzling cameo performance against Panama, when he scored a hat-trick in just 29 minutes on the field, proved that he is still the baton-waving maestro of this Argentina orchestra. It was his fourth hat-trick for his country and took him to 53 international goals, just three behind the record of Gabriel Batistuta, scorer of those two vital goals 23 years ago.

Messi’s presence brings a different dynamic to Argentina’s play, forcing the opposition’s defensive focus to change, creating space for others and adding zip and zest to his teammates’ forays forwards. The sweeping pass to set up Sergio Agüero’s goal against Panama should not be overlooked – when Messi is on the pitch, the rest of his team play better too.

Significantly, after taking things easy (by his standards) in the group stage, Messi should be well rested for the knock-out rounds – in sharp contrast to last summer, when he dragged Argentina almost single-handedly through its World Cup group, but looked drained by the time the final against Germany came around.

“We have ended the group stage as we wanted – topping the group,” Messi has said. “We won the three games well. Now another Copa starts. The difficult games are coming now.”

Doubts remain, most notably at the back, where Argentina has looked vulnerable at times, and the injury to Angel Di Maria remains a concern. But Martino’s (or in truth, Messi’s) side has looked like the cream of this year’s Copa América crop so far and, if they beat Venezuela, will face USA in the semifinal, avoiding Mexico and Colombia. It may be that the ghosts of Argentina’s long trophy drought are finally ready to be put to bed.