East Rutherford, N.J.- Chile retained the Copa America title that it won last year with a second consecutive penalty kick shootout victory over Argentina in front of over 82,000 fans Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, a victory that would be overshadowed by Lionel Messi’s postgame announcement that he had decided to end his international career.
“In the locker room, I thought that the national team was finished for me, that it’s not for me,” Messi told Argentine television. “It’s what I feel right now. It’s a great sadness that it happened to me, that I missed penalty kick that was very important. It’s for the good of everybody. It’s not enough to just get to the final and not win.”
Like last year when Chile hosted the Championship Match neither of these high powered sides could find a goal in the regulation 90 minutes or in the two 15 minute extra time periods, extra time was played only in the Copa America Final this year, with previous rounds going directly to pks after 90.
The home of the New York Giants and New York Jets of the NFL attracted the biggest crowd to ever see a soccer match in New Jersey and with the Manhattan skyline glittering in the background a classic was hoped for when the Chile and Argentina rematch became a reality.
Conversely, the possibility of an ugly match between two bitter, evenly matched rivals was another possibility, and unfortunately that, for the most part, is what these two talent-rich teams produced.
A combined eight yellow and two red cards were handed out on the night and even if referee Herber Lopes seemed out of his depth at times, it was that kind of match.
The sides picked up eight yellows between them, the same number of shots on goal the teams combined for on the night. Argentina had the better scoring chances on the night with the miss of the game coming from Gonzalo Higuain in the first half.
Higuain continued his unfortunate habit of falling down on the big occasion for La Albiceleste, when Chile’s defensive rock Gary Medel surprisingly coughed up possession in his own half, sending Higuain in alone on Claudio Bravo.
Bravo would prove heroic later in the night but on this occasion, Higuain, who led Serie A in goals this season by almost double his nearest competitor, scuffed his shot, a miss that would haunt Argentina all night and for some time to come.
Still, Argentina’s path to a first major title since the 1990’s looked clear when Lopes sent Marcelo Diaz to the showers for a second yellow card, with both indiscretions coming against Messi.
The first was a violent, high boot, slide tackle that was an easy call, the second was not as clear. Diaz did cut off Messi’s space on the second foul but Messi seemed intent on running into the defender and uncharacteristically brandished an imaginary yellow card for Lopes to see.
Messi stepped out of character again just three minutes later when he went down in the box after minimal contact, looking to sell a penalty call. Lopes wasn’t buying, however, and Messi earned a yellow card.
Referee Lopes would even the match at 10 a side in the 43rd minute, sending Marcos Rojo to the dressing room, erroneously as it happened, for a hard tackle on Arturo Villa.
To be fair to the official Rojo went in hard and Vidal’s leg bent back violently under his body. Replays, though, showed that the Bayern Munich man rolled over the ball and that Rojo made less contact than appeared.
The second half was somewhat less frenetic, if just somewhat. Chile’s best scoring chance was denied by Ramiro Funes Mori, whose perfectly timed and executed tackle denied Alexis Sanchez what looked to be a sure scoring chance.
A match winner would have been just reward for Alexis, who had to settle for the Copa America Centenario Golden Boot, awarded in postgame ceremonies. Higuain replacement Sergio Aguero had Argentina’s two best second half chances, he shot very high on the first and was then denied by in fantastic fashion by Bravo when his header was ticketed for the upper 90.
So it would take penalty kicks to separate these rivals for the second year running and again it would be La Roja that would maintain its nerve. After Sergio Romero denied Arturo Vidal on Chile’s first spot kick Messi sent his shot well high of Bravo’s net.
Bravo would save from Lucas Biglia, leaving it to Francisco Silva to win it. Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, himself an Argentine, had subbed out his two best goal scorers, Alexis and Eduardo Vargas, but Silva proved up to the task and Chile retained the title it won over Argentina just one year ago.
The final was exciting, even if the championship stakes provided for a spectacle that doled out its excitement in crunching tackles more so than with brilliant skills.
It is a shame that Messi chose to make his announcement postgame, an act that can be seen as an affront to Chile, worthy champions.
The dysfunction within Argentine soccer’s ruling body played a role in Messi’s decision and is so ingrained that on Friday FIFA announced that it had taken control of Argentina’s soccer federation from the current leadership and will help pick an emergency panel to manage its affairs.
Messi has long been said to be unhappy with the situation and that dissatisfaction, but at just 29 year’s old the superstar will hopefully reconsider, especially with the World Cup just two years away.
Several of Messi’s teammates were reportedly set to follow their captain into the international sunset with Aguero, Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and Javier Mascherano said to be considering their futures.