The image of a bloody patch, thanks to a bruise in Lionel Messi’s ankle, went viral the day Argentina sneaked past Colombia on penalties in the semi-final of Copa America on Thursday. This is not the first time that he has played on with an injury in a prolonged career - but it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a reflection of how badly he wants to win this edition of Copa to have one major international crown to his name.
No prizes for guessing the reason behind his desperation. At 34, the genius is at the crossroads of his football career - he is without a club at the moment after winning every honour possible at club and individual level while playing for Barcelona - but there is no major international silverware in his cabinet barring an Olympic gold which no one even remembers now. His best chance to win the Fifa World Cup had come and gone in 2014 - when Argentina went down by an extra-time goal to an unstoppable Germany and the talismanic player himself was guilty of missing a gilt-edged opportunity.
The question that stares in the face is if he doesn’t do it now, when? Yes, Qatar 2022 is not that far away but the World Cup is an unpredictable ballgame while in Brazil, he is that one vital step away from holding aloft the blue riband of supremacy in Latin American football. The champion’s ego also plays its part here as Cristiano Ronaldo - with whom he had polarised opinions in the global debate for the greatest footballer of the world tag in the new millennium - has an Euro championship to boast of after all.
The Copa, which has been overshadowed by it’s share of starpower and drama at the Euro over the past month, saw Messi in scintillating form this time - he had scored four and provided five assists in his country’s 11 goals. He was almost an incarnation of his Barca avatar but anything less than the winners’ trophy on Saturday (Sunday morning UAE time) - and the stigma of being great at the club level only will come back to haunt him.
The slice of champions’ luck that is needed to win major championships has often the eluded some of the biggest legends of the game - and Messi has been no exception. Just ponder Portugal’s campaign in Euro 2016, where Ronaldo’s men scraped into the knockout stages without winning a single game but on the merit of a best third place finish in the group - a system which has been panned by a lot of fans.
In the final against Didier Deschamps’ France, the same combination which went on to win the World Cup so convincncingly two years later, Ronaldo had to leave the field after sustaining an injury early on but the underdogs prevailed with a great degree of resilience after a strike from Eder. If Portugal had finished on the wrong side of the result, who would have gloated about CR7 inspiring the team vociferously from the dugout ?
As always in a Brazil-Argentina clash, there are no clear favourites in the final. However, one cannot discount the fact that it will be held at the cavernous Maracana Stadium, albeit without fans, along with Brazil's slightly better record over the last four weeks in the internationals.
There are no prizes for guessing that Tite’s men will not allow Messi the leeway to weave his magic with his close control. Can he take the white-and-blue stripes over the line this time?
We will wait and watch - for professional sport doesn’t always make for fairytale endings.