Lionel Messi’s penalty miss at the Copa América Centenario has signalled his retirement from international football. The Barcelona attacker put in an impressive performance over the 120 minute Final but had to watch as Chile lifted the cup when he was unable find the net to give his team victory, 23 years after Argentina's last major title.
But he’s not alone…
For at least half a century in South America, which plays host to the oldest continental tournament in the footballing world, a number of the greatest footballers have been left unrewarded.
Diego Maradona and Pelé both competed in this magnificent tournament during their respective glory days, but the Copa proved elusive for each of them: an experience that Lionel Messi is only too familiar with. Of course, history is full of stars who did manage to add the Copa América to their list of achievements, but we’re focusing here on the undisputed “world beaters” - some of the best players to grace the game.
O Rei played in just one continental tournament: the 1959 edition held in Buenos Aires. That Brazilian team had just won the World Cup in Sweden several months before and were being hailed as favourites, especially as their coach, Vicente Feola, was able to choose from the kind of group of players that comes around just once in a generation.
As well as an 18-year-old Pelé, the greatest player in the world, the Canarinho team included the likes of Zito, Mário Zagallo, Bellini, Nilton, Djalma Santos, Dino Sani, Didí and Paulo Valentim. They arrived in Buenos Aires expected by most to take the South American title, but it was Argentina, who had been all but destroyed by a disastrous World Cup campaign in Sweden, that won the championship.
Nonetheless, Pelé was top goalscorer in a tournament that was defined by a 1-1 draw between the Brazilians and the Argentinians at El Monumental. Five of the six goalkeepers that faced the Brazilian star were unable to keep him off the scoresheet. Only the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Leiva managed not to concede any of the eight goals that Pelé notched up, although he did see Tim put three past him.
The ‘59 edition was the last one that Argentina would win until 1991, when Alfio Basile’s squad claimed the Copa in Chile. During that 32-year absence from the top of the Americas, Diego Armando Maradona played in three continental tournaments, never achieving higher than fourth place.
In 1979, a period in which the tournament had no fixed host and fixtures were played with home and away legs in each country, César Luis Menotti’s team shared a group with Bolivia and Brazil. Maradona played two matches in 1979, scoring one goal for a team that featured few of the world champions of 1978 and was instead made up of youth players and second-stringers. As was the case throughout the Menotti era, Argentina did not manage to defeat Brazil.
Now as a World Cup winner, Maradona played once again in the Copa América on home soil in 1987. CONMEBOL was starting to make adjustments to its continental tournament, doing away with the perpetual rotation of hosts and returning to holding it in a single country.
In the first match against Peru, the famous number 10 scored one and then set up two against Ecuador, but the Albiceleste’s performance was generally woeful and the star had to settle for fourth place following a semi-final defeat to Uruguay and losing 2-1 to Colombia in the match for third place.
There was no “third time lucky” for Maradona at the 1989 Copa América, who was once again in the squad under Carlos Salvador Bilardo for the rehearsal for 1990 World Cup in Italy. Argentina were not involved in the World Cup qualifiers, having already qualified as champions following their victory in Mexico ’86.
In the first round, Argentina were solid enough, qualifying for the final four-team round robin without conceding, but they only scored two, neither of which were scored by the feet (or even the head) of the superstar. The final round marked the beginning of a debacle for the Albiceleste, during which they went months without scoring. In the final round, Argentina finished in third place with no goals in their favour.
In Chile in 2015, Lionel Messi played in his third Copa América. Of his previous appearances, the second-place finish at the 2007 edition stands out, when Basile’s team eased to the Final, but then crumbled against Brazil.
They also failed to make the grade in 2011, when they were eliminated on penalties by eventual winners Uruguay, and in 2015, when Chile won the Copa América for the first time, also defeating Messi and company on penalties in the Final.
At just 29 Leo probably would have had another chance to achieve what Pelé and Maradona never could: to lift the Copa trophy. But now, having retired from international duty in the wake of yet another Final defeat, it seems the chance has passed him by.