THE first disappointment of Lionel Messi’s international career was getting sent off on debut against Hungary in 2005, just a couple of minutes after coming off the bench.
The second was staying on the bench throughout the World Cup quarter-final of 2006, when Argentina lost to Germany on penalties.
And the third was the final of the Copa America in 2007.
Argentina had breezed through the competition, playing some wonderful football, and were hot favourites to win the title.
But they were blown away by the pace and power of the Brazil counter attack, and lost 3-0.
Fourteen years later comes a chance for revenge. It is Brazil v Argentina again in the final of the Copa America.
The severity of the pandemic means there will be no fans in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium.
But the planet will be watching, anxious to see whether Messi can at last win a senior title for Argentina – or if his great friend and former Barcelona team-mate Neymar can enjoy his finest moment in a Brazil shirt.
Both have won Olympic gold – Messi in Beijing back in 2008, Neymar five years ago in this very stadium – where he also won the Confederations Cup in 2013.
The World Cup has so far eluded them both. Perhaps more surprisingly, so has the Copa America.
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This will be Messi’s fourth final in his sixth Copa.
As well as 2007, there were defeats in both 2015 and 16, both times to Chile and both times on penalties – which helps explain why Tuesday night’s semi-final shoot out with Colombia was such a dramatic moment for Messi and the likes of Nico Otamendi and Angel Di Maria. They have all known this pain before.
For Neymar this is only his third Copa, and his first for six years.
He passed on 2016 to play in the Olympics, and was injured on the eve of 2019, when Brazil kept up their record of winning the title every time they have hosted the competition, a record that goes all the way back to 1919.
Either Brazil will retain that record, and Neymar will be celebrating – or history will be made, and all those bar room debates about the greatest of all time will have to take into account that one of the main arguments used against Messi will have lost its validity.
And if it is Argentina, it seems impossible to believe that Messi will not have played a huge part in the outcome.
He is in wonderful form, fully integrated into the most solid side Argentina have fielded in the last five years.
The side have scored 11 times in the competition. Astonishingly, he has been involved in all of them
Neymar, meanwhile, is just as important to Brazil. The only game they failed to win came when he was rested for the last group game, a 1-1 draw with Ecuador.
He only has two goals to Messi’s four, but he too has been setting them up when he has not been scoring, laying on both the goals Brazil scored in the knockout matches for attacking midfielder Lucas Paqueta.
A huge part of the appeal of Brazil versus Argentina is the purity of the footballing rivalry, the battle for supremacy between the two countries who have consistently supplied the world’s most talented players.
Neymar against Messi in 2021 is a worthy chapter of a great tradition.
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