Lionel Messi and Argentina rejoice in their greatest national team of all time


Lionel Messi was all smiles. Argentina had just seen off Canada to force passage into another major final, their team’s relentless form of the past five years maintained and conviction bolstered that they will retain the Copa America title won four years ago.

“This is so beautiful, and it’s something we should value,” Messi said. “I’ve been saying that to play in another final, to play in four straight finals… what this group of players is doing is something to be proud of. We should value it and recognize it.”

There is little doubt now that this group of players — led by Messi, their venerable captain — are the best Argentina team of all time.

The Copa’s defending champions have lost just twice in 61 matches, a sequence stretching back half a decade. In that time they have won the 2021 Copa America, the 2022 World Cup and the inaugural Finalissima against European champions Italy in 2023. Beating Canada 2-0 on Tuesday night at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, already confirmed as the venue for the 2026 World Cup final, leaves Argentina 90 minutes away from another major tournament trophy.


MetLife Stadium witnesses Argentina’s greatest-ever team (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Messi has now led his national team to seven finals. But before lifting the Copa America trophy in 2021, he had only suffered crushing defeats on the grandest stages, which clouded his legacy with Argentina.

The 2014 team that lost to Germany in a World Cup final that went to extra time featured many of the same players who then lost the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals. In recent years, Messi has made an effort to honor the teams and players deemed losers by Argentina’s fanatical footballing culture. Today, Argentina’s players are national heroes who have shown an unrelenting hunger to win. 

The stadiums in which they have played in the United States over the three weeks of this tournament so far have been filled to the brim with fans clad in blue and white. Back in Buenos Aires, the country is eager to celebrate another title. There is a belief that this team have fortune on their side, unlike those sides who faltered in their biggest moments before 2021. 

“We’ve done this before and it wasn’t valued, maybe because we weren’t lucky enough to win,” said Messi. “Those teams also played in Copa America and World Cup finals. But now we need to enjoy this moment. 


Messi was all smiles in New Jersey on Tuesday night (Elsa/Getty Images)

“The people (of Argentina) deserve to stick their chests out and enjoy this Argentina national team and all its accomplishments. We’re in another final and we’re still competing.”

Messi scored Argentina’s second goal against Canada, taking his tally at international level to 109 — the second-most of all time behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s 130 for Portugal. It was actually his first goal of the tournament, a reflection that this has been a nondescript Copa America for Argentina’s talisman. 

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An adductor (groin) injury suffered in Argentina’s second game of the group stage forced him to miss one match. Argentina, though, carried on without him, easily winning their group. That is what makes this Argentina team special. They are deep in nearly every position.

A player such as Julian Alvarez can be swapped with Serie A’s leading goalscorer Lautaro Martinez if necessary. The back line is as stout as any group of defenders in the world, led by Tottenham’s Cristian Romero. They have full-backs with different profiles; Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna are sure-footed defenders, while Gonzalo Montiel and Nicolas Tagliafico are man-marking bulldogs.

Argentina’s midfield is the strength of the team. Rodrigo De Paul, in tears after the final whistle due to the physical sacrifice the Canada match required, plays alongside two Premier League No 8s in Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernandez. Both players attack and defend persistently, which allows Messi and Angel Di Maria to pick their moments to press and focus on chance creation. 


Di Maria will retire after this tournament (Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Since head coach Lionel Scaloni took over in 2019, Argentina has been defined by their depth and tactical flexibility, while maintaining an identity centered on dominating possession and controlling matches from beginning to end. Di Maria has said publicly that he will retire from international football after this Copa America. The 36-year-old will now have a unique opportunity to walk away after winning yet another trophy.

“I don’t think I’d be able to have dreamt this,” Di Maria said. “I’m so grateful to this generation of players, because it’s thanks to them I’ve been able to accomplish all of this. It’s thanks to them that my last game with the national team will be a final.

“There have been some bad times — sometimes you have to get walked over. But this is how it had to end. With me lifting the (World Cup) trophy and playing in another final with this shirt.”

Messi, who turned 37 last month, referred to this moment in his career, and that of Di Maria and veteran defender Nicolas Otamendi, also 36, as “our last battles”. On Tuesday, he stressed that the road to continued success has been difficult. Argentina is not a team that routs its opponents. Every match is filled with tension and anxiety, followed by a celebratory roar when Argentina’s goals find the opponents’ net. 

At the other end of the field, Argentina has a goalkeeper who has become nearly impossible to beat. Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez gives the current world champions an edge that makes them easy to dislike. Villainy in sport is a sign of success. But as he grinned widely in the bowels of the MetLife Stadium post-match, Martinez seemed in awe of his team’s ascendancy. 

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe this,” he said. “You have to believe but keep your feet on the ground, with the mentality that all of this is possible.” 

Asked if he felt Argentina was the tournament’s best team, Martinez shook his head humbly. “There are a lot of good teams,” said Martinez. “Look at Brazil (out in the quarterfinals). The pitches (being used for this Copa) are f***ed and any team can challenge you. Uruguay looks really good and Colombia hasn’t lost in almost 30 games. (Those two sides meet in the second semifinal on Wednesday night). It’s going to be tough.” 

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Scaloni himself has teetered on the edge of despair even as Argentina continued to win. He nearly walked away from the national team last November, after a historic World Cup qualifying win over Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. “I need to stop the ball and start thinking — I have a lot of things to think about during this time,” Scaloni said then. 

After last night’s win over Canada, Scaloni looked like a coach who had regained his purpose. He was visibly elated. “We’re coming from a lot of success and that makes everything more difficult — it costs so much more,” he said. Scaloni deflected all questions about Argentina’s impressive run of three consecutive finals wins. “We’re focused on winning this final.”


Scaloni has been re-energised (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Scaloni told reporters that Messi’s future will be determined by the player. He and his staff will never close the door on the veteran. In fact, Scaloni stressed Messi can remain a part of the national team for as long as he wishes. “I’ll take him with me if I go somewhere else,” Scaloni said. “He’d be a great help to me, but it’ll be up to him.”

A few steps away, surrounded by hordes of reporters from around the world, Messi continued to enjoy the limelight.

It must be incredibly hard for him to consider walking away from this. He adores this group of players and they, in turn, idolize him. A win in the Copa America final on Sunday (early Monday UK time) in Miami, where he now plays his club football with Inter Miami of MLS, could be the catalyst that prolongs Messi’s international career through to the 2026 World Cup, co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico. Alternatively, a fourth straight trophy might prompt him to hang up his boots as a hero. 

For now, Messi is as happy as he has ever been, and so is the country of Argentina.

“Argentines are crazy about this national team and crazy about football,” Messi added. “This group (of players) has been fostering that relationship for a long time now. We’ve won important things and these players continue to compete game after game. We don’t always play well, but our willingness to compete is spectacular.

“Let’s enjoy this moment, but also appreciate what began eight years ago.”

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Argentina 2-0 Canada takeaways: Messi scores, Argentina heads to Copa America final

(Top photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)



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