As divisive a topic as any within the world of football is whether a player should be required to inspire both club and country to victory in order to earn legend status? Is a place alongside the all-time greats attainable without success on both domestic and international fronts?
While the debate rages on among idle pub-dwellers, the slim chance of any amicable compromise only chased further away by the emptying of every pint glass; for players, the question lingers only as a peripheral notion, a baseless subjective abstraction that few on the inside would ever likely need to ponder at all. Yet still there exist two players in today’s game around whom the matter centres more often than most, and for whom the question has become increasingly pertinent in recent years.
Despite almost a decade of unparalleled dominance in the domestic game, in the summer of 2016 the world’s greatest players entered their countries’ respective continental tournaments still without a major international title to their name. Both teams reached their finals. On 26 June 2016, Lionel Messi led his team onto the field to face Chile in the Copa América Centenario final. Exactly two weeks later, Cristiano Ronaldo captained his country against France in the final of Euro 2016.
Though the jury remains out on exactly how necessary an international title is on a player’s application to become part of the fabled few, neither perennial winner could hide just how desperately they wanted, needed, to lead their countries to victory. Ronaldo in just his second final with Portugal, Messi in his fourth with Argentina.
Having given all that their bodies would allow, both players greeted their final whistles with tears – only their reasons differed. The Argentine inconsolable, Messi wept as the realisation set in. His team had come up painfully short, second best in yet another final. For the Portuguese, there were tears of joy. Snatching the game’s only goal in extra-time, Ronaldo’s men had defeated the favoured hosts and conquered Europe for the very first time.
A divergence of fortune with the potential to underline the great modern rivalry, two nights of tears washed away the war paint to reveal two men stripped bare by their dreams, at the whim of the beautiful game’s most inescapable dichotomy.
This is the story of the two greatest football players of our generation, the troubles they faced in attempting to add a solitary international title to their colossal trophy collections, and how the worst of fates can still befall the best of players.
The elder of the two, Ronaldo was given his international bow first, featuring as a second-half substitute for A Seleçção in a 1-0 victory against Kazakhstan in August 2003. Though his debut played out a relatively underwhelming affair, the call-up itself topped off a fine start to the 18-year-old’s season having secured a move to European giants Manchester United just a week before.
Two years after Ronaldo’s inaugural introduction, Messi was given his first taste of international football, in August 2005, replacing Lisandro López in the second half of Argentina’s friendly away in Hungary. But the forward, by then 18-years-old himself, was soon left wishing that his debut had proved to be as incident-free as his soon-to-be rivals’.
After reacting a little too physically to having a forward run of his hampered by a blatant shirt pull, a flailing arm to the face of the Hungarian offender ensured a contentious red card ended Messi’s first match just 43 seconds after it began. His team-mates returned to the dressing room after the game to find the youngster crying, scared he had blown his chance to impress his country. Little did he know just what awaited him.
A cameo appearance in a forgettable friendly and a debut sending off almost impressive in its speed; certainly, neither player had planned for their international careers to begin in this way. But both matches were quickly proven to be anomalous as they soon began to lead their countrymen from the front.
Ronaldo’s earliest opportunity to strut his stuff for his nation came with the arrival of Euro 2004, hosted in his native Portugal. With just seven appearances for his country under his belt, Ronaldo entered the tournament still very much a novice at international level. Nevertheless, the expectation of the Portuguese people weighed heavily on his shoulders – a pressure he was determined to use as inspiration in his pursuit of glory.
In the tournament’s opener at Estádio do Dragão, Ronaldo was able to score his first goal for his country, however the reality of the situation cut short any potential celebration. His goal simply a late consolation strike in a shock 2-1 defeat to group stage rivals Greece, their loss necessitated two wins against Russia and Spain in order to progress to the knockout stages, and so the pressure grew.
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Eight days later Portugal edged past Spain by a single goal, which followed a 2-0 victory against Russia four days previous, ensuring the host’s progression as group winners. With the loss to Greece well behind them, Portugal prepared to face England in the quarter-finals with a renewed confidence.
Starting once more on the left side of an attacking trident, completed by the ever creative Deco and experienced captain Luís Figo, Ronaldo and co. felt confident of troubling an experienced England back line, and trouble them they did. However, his country’s first goal of the game eluded them until the 83rd minute when a vital Hélder Postiga equaliser took the game to extra time, after Michael Owen’s audacious flick just three minutes in had remained unmatched and looked to be taking England through.
A spectacular long-range effort from Rui Costa and a smart swivel finish from Frank Lampard saw the game’s initiative swing back and forth in extra-time, but neither side could answer the call to win the game outright and so it was penalties that would separate them.
Portugal were given early hope in the shootout by David Beckham’s skying of England’s opener, but Rui Costa’s equally elevated effort tied things once more. Three penalties each followed with both sides trading confident penalties, none more so than Postiga’s Panenka, but the game was eventually decided by the spontaneously ungloved Ricardo, as the Portugal ‘keeper followed up his own successful conversion by denying Darius Vassell’s penalty. The save sent the English home, muttering something about a Sol Campbell goal as they went.
All that stood between Portugal and a dream final in Lisbon was a Netherlands team that also required a penalty shootout to sneak past Sweden. Despite the presence of van der Sar in goal, along with Seedorf, Davids, Robben, and van Nistelrooy further up-field, Portugal were confident of reaching the final, and when the ball was glanced home by Ronaldo’s curly gelled locks midway through the first half, Portugal seemed to be on their way.
A deflected own goal from Andrade threatened to derail the home team’s ambitions, but this came only after a superb curling effort from Maniche had doubled Portugal’s lead before the hour mark, and so they remained firmly on course to the capital, withstanding a late Dutch onslaught to win 2-1.
The very next evening, having defeated France 1-0 in their quarter-final tie, another resolute defensive performance from Greece helped the underdogs negotiate an extra time victory in their semi-final against the Czech Republic, courtesy of a Traianos Dellas silver goal, and the Greeks joined the hosts in an unlikely final.
In a game dominated by the favourites, at all times it appeared as though Portugal’s opening goal was a matter of not if but when, and seeing the sides enter the tunnel at half-time still level at 0-0 only increased the anticipation. But the anticipation soon turned to dread when Portugal were made to pay for their shoddy finishing.
As Angelos Basinas sent Greece’s only corner of the game long into the penalty area, just shy of the hour mark, it was their 6 feet 3 inch forward, Andreas Charisteas, who rose high above Costinha and Ricardo Carvalho to nod the ball over the stranded Portuguese goalkeeper. With what would prove to be Greece’s only shot on target all night, they had an unbelievable lead.
As the game wore on the hosts became most desperate; no distance or angle too unlikely, the shots rained on the Greece goal. Deco, Maniche, Figo, Rui Costa, Ronaldo: any player in red with a capable strike was given a strict shoot-on-sight directive. But when Ronaldo beat the offside trap only to send his best chance of the game high into the stands, it was clear, Portugal could do nothing to sully the silver-haired Antonios Nikopolidis’ third clean sheet in as many games. Somehow the dream had become a nightmare.
In total Portugal took 17 shots at the Greek goal, yet their desperation and loss of composure was clear for all to see as only five troubled Nikopolidis. Of their 10 corners, they couldn’t make a single one count.
When the referee’s whistle put the Portuguese out of their misery, a wave of disappointment was met by a roar of Greek delight. As Greece’s players fell to their knees to praise the ground on which they had defied all likelihood to become champions, the Portuguese couldn’t help but curse it. The team 80-1 to win the tournament, on its opening day, had done just that.
Ronaldo was left devastated by the 2004 loss
The sound of their euphoria tainted with disbelief, Greece’s songs scored scenes that reverberated around the whole of Europe. A continent in shock, the Henri Delaunay trophy held aloft in the Greek hands. Ronaldo watched on through a teary gaze; a defeated finalist for the first time. His presence in the UEFA Team of the Tournament proved little consolation.
The honour of hosting the first international competition at which Messi and Ronaldo both featured went to Germany, as the famous nation hosted the 2006 World Cup. Though an unbeaten group stage for both teams saw Messi and Ronaldo progress into the knockout stages as group winners, it was there that both sides met their untimely demise.
While it was at the quarter-final stage that Argentina fell, succumbing to hosts and eventual third-place finishers Germany, Portugal made it as far as the semi-finals, having emulated their Euro 2004 run by knocking out both the Netherlands and England.
Along the way, Ronaldo had even managed to assume the role of pantomime baddy for his part in Wayne Rooney’s red card for a contentious stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. His protestations and resulting wink made for a potentially anxious return to the Premier League at the summer’s end. But none of this distracted Ronaldo from the task ahead. However, unlike their previous tournament, Portugal came up against Zinedine Zidane’s France and it was his penalty that sent Portugal crashing out.
Despite ubiquitous expectation from spectators the world over, a predictable consequence of their dazzling domestic form, with just one goal apiece the 2006 World Cup seemingly arrived too early for both players as neither proved able to live up to their star billing.
In the year that followed, a matured Messi contested his first international final. Though his country had appeared in a final as recently as 2004, just three weeks after the Euro 2004 final that featured Ronaldo, at that time Messi’s international debut was still a year away and the youngster could only watch on as his country lost the 2004 Copa América final 4-2 on penalties, forcibly surrendering to their bitter South American rivals Brazil. But with a talented, attack-minded squad, braced by the burgeoning Lionel Messi, at the 2007 Copa América Argentina sought revenge in Venezuela.
Argentina began the tournament with a flourish, making light work of the United States and Colombia, securing 4-1 and 4-2 victories, which they capped with a routine 1-0 win over Paraguay, ensuring they progressed as group winners.
The goals scored column of the final group table read nine and still Messi was yet to find the net. Thus far Hernán Crespo and Juan Román Riquelme had led the assault on South American goals. But Messi broke his Copa América duck in a superb 4-0 dismantling of Peru, and together a free-scoring Argentina marched onto the semi-finals.
There they faced a Mexico team still ebullient from having finished above many people’s tournament favourites Brazil in the group stage, setting up a potentially tricky tie. But Argentina made light work of them too, as Messi was joined on the scoresheet by Gabriel Heinze and the seemingly omnipresent Riquelme, and so into the final La Albiceleste charged.
Despite their 6-1 demolition of Chile in the quarter-finals, Brazil’s unconvincing semi-final win versus Uruguay seemingly halted their momentum and this only added to Argentina’s confidence. A key compartment of the in-form finalists, Messi appeared to be on the brink of Copa América glory at the first time of asking.
But, as is so often the case within football, common sense was soon abandoned, at the precise moment Julio Baptista’s right foot rocketed Brazil to a fourth-minute lead. When Riquelme’s fierce half-volley cannoned off the Brazil post just four minutes later, it appeared as though the game’s leaders may have to brace themselves for a fight. But much of the Argentine hope dissipated at the sight of Roberto Ayala’s sliced clearance which only served to turn a harmless cross into his own goal, doubling his side’s deficit.
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Try as they might, Argentina couldn’t break down a Brazil team determined to see out a famous victory and the game’s final goal fell once more to La Verde-Amarela; marauding full-back Dani Alves finishing a fine Brazilian breakaway with an arrowed shot low beyond the outstretched arm of Roberto Abbondanzieri.
A fate almost identical to Ronaldo’s, Messi’s first international final also ended in despair. His country defeated twice in as many finals by their greatest rivals, the reality could hardly have been crueller. All the boy could do was look beyond the desolation and hope for another opportunity. At just 20, far from the peak of his powers, Messi knew beyond doubt that should another chance of silverware come the way of his countrymen in the coming years, he’d have a far greater chance of grasping it. For now, though, he’d be forgiven for wallowing in his sorrow.
Over the following eight years, the landscape of international football changed little for Ronaldo. Though his influence grew in the team, as his reputation in the game soared, he found that, even as captain, he could do little to aid in his country’s pursuit of a title.
In spite of his record-breaking transfer to Spanish titans Real Madrid and regardless of the domestic records and personal milestones he surpassed, with every passing tournament his country’s story played out an agonizingly familiar plot: Portugal would qualify strongly, progress through the group stage with relative ease, then falter in their first test against a capable nation. In the three tournaments that bookended the turning of the decade they found themselves bettered on each occasion. Euro 2008: eliminated by Germany; 2010 World Cup: eliminated by Spain; Euro 2012: eliminated by Spain.
The facts alone recall Portugal’s punctured participation a little harshly. Rather more than just disappointingly early exits, Portugal’s eliminations in 2008, 2010, and 2012 were delivered by the finalists (and twice the winners) of each of those tournaments. But the absence of fortune in their knockout round draws failed to appease Ronaldo’s frustrations.
Twenty-seven-years-old by the conclusion of Euro 2012, a decade of international football had done nothing to disguise the fact that Ronaldo’s best shot at footballing immortality had been squandered by the inadequacies of an adolescent. Certainly, the Euro 2004 final is most cruelly remembered in such a way, but a more mature Cristiano Ronaldo could perhaps have carried his country beyond the line in a way that a 17-year-old Ronaldo was simply incapable. But the tragedy of circumstance affords us no sympathy and retribution lies only in the opportunities of the future.
After the heartbreak of 2007, Messi’s next opportunity came in the form of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. By the end of the 2009-10 domestic season, Barcelona had amassed seven trophies in just two years, inspired no less by the remarkable prolificacy of a Lionel Messi now seemingly in the form of his life under new coach Pep Guardiola. As the World Cup beckoned, the people of Argentina prayed for their maestro to carry his form with him into the tournament. If he could, the Jules Rimet trophy may just end the summer en route for Buenos Aires.
In their opening three group games, Argentina swept aside their opposition, scoring seven times and conceding just once in disposing of Nigeria, South Korea and Greece. Though not a single one of these goals were scored by Messi, the season’s Ballon d’Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year had claimed an assist in three of them and a Man of the Match performance in the group’s final fixture, proof that the absence of Argentina’s most famous name on the scoresheet was indicative not of a lack of form or influence but simply the abundance of goalscoring potential within the Argentina squad.
The round of 16 tasked Argentina with circumventing the runners-up of Group A, Mexico, whose progression came at the expense of the tournament’s hosts South Africa, edging them on goal difference only. To the surprise of few, Argentina saw off the Mexicans too, winning 3-1 courtesy of goals from Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuaín.
But in their quarter-final with Germany, Messi failed to find the net again and, this time, Tevez, Higuaín, Di María and Agüero all drew a blank too. For all their collective potency, Argentina could do nothing to break the German resistance. Meanwhile, the German attackers ran amok; the Argentine defence clueless as to how to stop them. By the time the referee brought the game to an end, Germany had notched four times.
Lady Luck had smiled on the Germans in their preceding fixture. The refusal of a clear Frank Lampard goal had denied England the opportunity to pull themselves level, allowing the Germans to carry their faltering advantage into the half-time interval which they would later add to, sending their English rivals home. But their latest victory, their masterclass against Argentina, relied upon no such fortune.
Were it not for the incessant drone of the vuvuzelas, Argentina’s agony would have been audible for miles. A harsh, accusing light shone against the face of Diego Maradona; their manager’s passion and fervour shown to be impotent when countered by the experienced and the tactically astute. He had led his country to victory in the 1986 World Cup on the pitch, but this year, off of it, he hadn’t come close.
Well beaten, Messi followed Ronaldo out of the tournament. His country departed another international tournament with their hands empty.
In 2011 Argentina were given the chance to redeem themselves at the earliest opportunity, to commit the disappointments of yesteryear to the past and elevate themselves beyond the nearly men of bygone eras. This year offered the chance to win the Copa América on home soil. Yet, remarkably, their very own Copa América only lead them to an even greater disaster, turning in an underperformance unseen at a tournament this century.
Messi at the 2011 Copa América
Seemingly buckling under the added pressure of playing host, Argentina’s group stage performances left a great deal to be desired, as only a 3-0 win versus Costa Rica, in the final game, saw them progress after limp draws against Bolivia and Colombia.
Avoiding Brazil at the quarter-final stage, Argentina instead met Uruguay, against whom they could only draw 1-1, and in the resulting penalty shootout Carlos Tevez’s miss proved fatal. Crashing out, well short of the final, Argentina’s misery was compounded. Far from progressing, Messi’s nation were going backwards.
In the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, Argentina were determined to set the record straight and there was no doubting their confidence. In the three years since their last tournament, their newly appointed captain Messi had taken up record-breaking as a near full-time occupation, landmarks tumbling as he hit an unprecedented 91 goals in all competitions in the 2012 calendar year.
The 2011 Copa América banished to the backs of minds, new national coach Alejandro Sabella oversaw the ushering in of a new era of Argentine football and hoped that with it would come new successes.
Portugal too fancied their chances in Brazil. Though their relative squad strength paled in comparison to the nations favoured to go all the way, their star man Ronaldo had matched Messi stride for stride domestically and had ended Messi’s dominance in the Ballon d’Or, claiming the award for himself in 2013 and 2014. In Ronaldo, Portugal believed they had a genuine chance to achieve something special.
Argentina’s three group stage games evidenced a slight shift in philosophy. Though it wasn’t overly pretty, they had found a way to win: 2-1 versus Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1-0 over Iran and 3-2 against Nigeria. Each game saw them rely heavily upon the instrumental Messi as he scored four of their five group stage goals and was named Man of the Match in each of their opening four fixtures, but never more than in tournament football do results matter. How they got them mattered little and Argentina progressed comfortably.
Portugal, meanwhile, once again evidenced their extraordinary ability to become architects of their own downfall. Before the whistle had called to a close their first half of football in Brazil, they had conceded three goals and seen one of their most experienced players red carded for violent conduct.
After Pepe marched off, his side eventually lost 4-0 to Germany, their tournament already hinging on a successful last two group games. After a 95th-minute equaliser from Silvestre Varela salvaged a point for Portugal against the United States, a minor miracle was needed to see them progress.
Portugal were able to do their part, as Ronaldo’s strike 10 minutes short of full-time saw them defeat Ghana, but his lack of celebration said it all. With Germany beating the United States by just a goal to nil, it would be the end of the line for Portugal. Knocked out on goal difference, this time around they wouldn’t even make it out of their group.
Argentina, though, headed on and their fixtures in the round of 16 and quarter-finals followed a similar pattern to that of their group stage games. Against Switzerland – with just two minutes left of extra-time – and in the following tie against Belgium, Argentina were only able to score once. But against both teams a resolute Argentine defence had kept consecutive clean sheets, meaning just one goal was enough.
On 8 July, hosts Brazil welcomed Germany to Belo Horizonte to contest a place in the World Cup final, having made it to the semi-finals themselves. Despite Germany’s overwhelming efficiency, many favoured the Brazilian’s passion and expected the home nation to continue their run to the final. But what transpired shocked the entire world.
In a demolition unlike anything seen before in a World Cup semi-final, Germany thrashed the hosts 7-1. The back of the Brazilian net had been hit five times before the clock had even ticked beyond the half-hour mark. A hush of disbelief fell over the stadium and soon swelled out beyond its walls. Hysterics set in for many onlooking Brazilians. Kicking, screaming, crying, they could only remonstrate. To them, their countrymen had embarrassed them and ruined what was supposed to be their fairytale homecoming. Meanwhile, the German spectators couldn’t believe their eyes.
Argentina’s delight at their rival’s collapse only grew when they themselves made it into the final. After a 0-0 draw with the Netherlands, the goals allocated to the semi-finals clearly exhausted the previous evening, Argentina capitalised on their opponents’ wayward penalties. Faultless with their own, Argentina won 4-2 and joined Germany in a World Cup final for the third time.
At the Maracanã, Argentina began the game strongly and were gifted the best early opportunity of the game. When Toni Kroos attempted to play safe and head the ball back to his goalkeeper, the ball fell woefully short, landing perfectly in the path of Gonzalo Higuaín. The Serie A striker, however, fluffed his lines, allowing the shot to screw wide off the inside of his boot, and he failed to add to his quarter-final goal.
Minutes later Higuaín atoned somewhat for his error, steering a wicked Ezequiel Lavezzi cross into the bottom corner beyond Manuel Neuer. But the forward was a clear yard offside and the goal was disallowed. Unfortunately for the South Americans, this was the closest Higuaín would come to breaching the German backline.
The Germans had their chances too and proved far more capable of hitting the target with theirs. However, a combination of adept defending and a charmed woodwork kept Germany at bay long enough to take the final to extra time.
For all their chances it seemed both sides would be forced to settle for the agony of the penalty shootout. Until seven minutes from time, when a hopeful cross from André Schürrle was met by a sublime chest control and volley from substitute Mario Götze, drilled past Argentine custodian Sergio Romero and into the goal, deciding the game and sending the travelling Germans into raptures. There was to be no way back for Argentina. The Germans held on to secure their fourth World Cup triumph.
At the tournament’s end Messi picked up the Golden Ball award, attributed to the World Cup’s outstanding player, but his contribution had proved insufficient. The trophy he and his country had laid their bodies down for was lost for another four years.
The following June signalled the beginning of the 2015 Copa América in Chile. Now under the tutelage of Tata Martino, a manager keen to impress his country having appeared overawed by his time at the Barcelona helm, Argentina began with a hiccup. Throwing away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Paraguay, Argentine eyes twitched at the thought of another bumpy Copa América ride.
But their fears were soon soothed by 1-0 wins over reigning champions Uruguay and a Jamaica team bereft of any real chance of progression, and so Argentina won their group with relative ease.
In the quarter-finals, Argentina were made to work for their win. Kept honest by a strong Colombian defence for the entirety of normal time, the game was decided by penalties. Though Argentina missed two of their kicks, Colombia missed three and so Messi’s men made it through to the semi-finals. There, Paraguay awaited them.
Just as they had in their first meeting, Argentina raced into a two-goal lead over Paraguay. Only this time there was to be no valiant comeback. The underdogs had threatened to close the gap again when Lucas Barrios pulled a goal back just before half-time but Argentina cantered to a further four goals in the second half, sealing a superb 6-1 win. Captain Messi missing again from the scoresheet, though his three assists ensured Argentina’s opponents in the final, Chile, had every reason to fear him.
With Chile contesting their third Copa América final but still yet to be crowned champions of South America, both sides knew the pain of second place all too well. Though, with Chile having been absent from a final since 1987, even host advantage couldn’t wrestle the initiative from the Argentines.
The final itself was a game defined by missed opportunities. Chances came and went for both sides, the majority of which found themselves sailing over the bar or wide of the post, as the intensity of the match seemed to sap the confidence from the players, best described by Richard Padula of the BBC: “It was a game in which the destroyers kicked, grappled and smothered the playmakers.”
With Messi expertly blunted by the energy and determination of a Chile team instructed by Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli to stifle the creativity of their opponents by any means necessary, all the Albiceleste captain could do was hope. Perhaps one of his team-mates would carry the baton the final few feet.
The game’s best chance fell to Higuaín with the final kick of regulation time. On the rare occasion that the Chilean midfield found themselves caught behind the ball, a Messi-led counter attack saw the Argentines bare down on the Chile goal with a four-on-three advantage. As Messi played the ball into space on the left wing, Lavezzi fired a pass across the face of goal towards the back post. Arriving belatedly was Higuaín who was able to get his studs on the ball, but only enough to turn it into the side-netting.
As it had done so often for Argentina, who clearly lacked the finesse to see off games on their own terms, the final of the 2015 Copa América went to penalties.
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After Matías Fernández gave Chile the lead in the shootout, Messi was able to score and tie the game. But Messi would be the only Argentine able to convert his penalty. The misses of Higuaín and Banega gifted Alexis Sánchez with the chance to make history.
After gathering his thoughts and steadying his nerves, Sánchez ran confidently towards the ball before dinking an audacious effort straight down the centre. A Panenka of all penalties. As Romero dived to his left, the ball nestled into the net. Sánchez ecstatic, he tore his shirt off and waved it wildly, conducting a stadium of cheering Chileans, as the noise erupted and spilt out across the continent.
Just as Argentina had planned to do four years before, Chile had won the Copa América on their very own turf, only this was their country’s first major trophy. After almost a century in waiting, Chile’s dream had finally come true. Messi’s, however, endured.
A year on from their nightmare in Chile, Argentina were given an immediate shot at redemption as the Copa América Centenario was hosted in the United States. Organised to commemorate the centenary year of the famous tournament, the 2016 Copa América bucked many trends in the name of celebration, becoming the first to be held outside of South America, the first to feature an expanded field of 16 teams, as well as offering teams the opportunity to fight for a golden trophy made specifically for the tournament, named La Copa del Siglo (The Cup of the Century) to be kept by its eventual winners.
Drawn into Group D along with Argentina were Chile, Panama, and Bolivia, with the reigning champions Argentina’s first opponents of the tournament.
At Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, two goals in eight minutes from Ángel Di María and Éver Banega proved sufficient to overcome Chile, whose only goal came as a stoppage time consolation. Next came a 5-0 thrashing of Panama, in which Messi grabbed a hat-trick just 26 minutes after coming on as a substitute, and a trouble-free 3-0 win over Bolivia. More so than ever before, Argentina looked ready.
In the quarter-finals, with old rivals Brazil out of the picture having stuttered to third in a group including Peru, Ecuador, and Haiti, Argentina were drawn to face Venezuela. With the deadlock broken by Higuaín just eight minutes in, Argentina hit four past the sorry Venezuelans, who managed just one in reply, and roared on to the semi-finals to face the hosts, USA.
Try as they might, the United States were simply incapable of thwarting an incessant Argentine invasion as Messi, Lavezzi and Higuaín conspired to put four past them too. Meanwhile, having smashed Mexico for seven in the quarter-finals, Chile manoeuvred past Colombia in the semi-finals to set up a rematch of the previous year’s final. Argentina versus Chile.
How fitting that the special one-off Copa América hosted by the country that brought us Hollywood would quickly develop into a reboot of the last year’s tournament.
Matching the script play-by-play, the Chileans proved, just as they had 12 months ago, that they knew better than anybody how to stop the Argentines from scoring. But preventing a team that had notched 18 goals in just five games was no easy task and their team’s focus on shackling La Albiceleste made finding the net themselves an unlikely scenario.
As with most reboots, this one had to be bigger, better, fiercer, to prove its necessity, and red cards for both Marcos Rojo and Marcelo Díaz ensured they kept their audience, as both sides went in at half-time a man light.
A fine impersonation of their previous final, 90 minutes plus extra time failed to part the sides. With the score 0-0 after extra time, once more, penalties would decide the fate of the Copa América.
Volunteering to take Argentina’s first penalty, just as he had a year ago, Messi stepped up to the spot. Only this time he couldn’t trouble the net, firing high and over the bar. The only silver lining to his miss was Arturo Vidal’s seconds earlier. The score remained 0-0. The four following penalties all found the net but when Claudio Bravo saved Lucas Biglia’s low effort, and Jean Beausejour dispatched his, Francisco Silva had the chance to secure back-to-back titles for the Chileans.
Messi hastily announced his international retirement after the Copa Centenario
As the referee’s whistle ended a seemingly eternal wait, Silva ran towards the ball and hit it hard towards the bottom left corner. Romero dived towards the opposite corner: 4-2, Chile had won it again.
Though he had remained so composed at the climax of each of his last two despairing finals, Messi couldn’t hide his emotions any longer. In three successive years his country had made the final of a major tournament, and in each one of them they had lost.
Having departed the pitch the moment Silva’s penalty was scored, Messi watched the scenes from the bench. Chilean songs roared proudly over a din of applause and chatter, waves of red cavorted joyously as the pitch and the stands became one. Messi simply sat in contemplative mood. Eventually he rejoined his compatriots but their despondency only deepened his own anguish and the tears began to cascade down his face. There was no consoling him. Their captain could only lead them this far.
In the days following his fourth failed final in just nine years, Messi announced his retirement from international football: “For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion,” he said. “It’s been four finals, I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over.”
But little over two weeks later, following a nationwide campaign hoping to bring about a reconsideration, the 29-year-old had reversed his decision. “I see there are many problems in Argentinian football and I don’t intend to create another one. Many things went through my head the day of the last final and I seriously thought of leaving, but I love this country and this shirt too much.”
And so, with the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in his midst, the journey towards Argentine salvation began anew once more; the abiding adoration of his country and the defining moment of his career, as ever, but a tournament away.
Just shy of two weeks before Messi’s Copa América Centenario final, Ronaldo’s Portugal kicked off their Euro 2016 campaign in Saint-Étienne with a tepid 1-1 draw with Euro debutants Iceland, before adding another single point to their tally following an equally anaemic 0-0 draw against Austria.
In their third group game, Portugal finally gave an opponent’s keeper – on this occasion the characteristically fully-trousered Gábor Király -, a thorough inspection, finding the net three times in the process. But these goals came only after Hungary had three times taken the lead themselves, and so Ronaldo’s assist and two goals claimed Portugal only a third draw in a row.
Despite becoming both the first player to score in four European Championships and the player with the most appearances at the Euros, his country’s inability to beat a single one of Iceland, Austria or Hungary didn’t bode well for their chances of surpassing their previous efforts at Euros in recent years.
Their miserly group stage return of just three points had left Portugal in the unenvious position of third place in their group, a finish that in any other year would have seen them sent home. But, in the newly expanded 24-team European Championship, Portugal were fortunate to have finished as one of the four highest-ranked third-place teams, and so they progressed, rather awkwardly, into the knockout phase. Unbeaten, but uninspiring.
In the round of 16, Portugal faced a Croatia team that had topped a tricky group consisting of reigning European champions Spain, along with Turkey and the Czech Republic. Consequently, many expected Portugal to be shown up by a team coursing with creativity. Instead, Portugal emerged victorious.
Far from a classic, Croatia versus Portugal sat at 0-0 for almost the entirety of its 120-minute running time. But with just three minutes until the fate of penalties, Croatia’s Marcelo Brozović back-post header could only rebound off of the upright. When Portugal regained possession on the edge of their area just seconds later, a counter-attack broke away which ended with the enigmatic Ricardo Quaresma heading Portugal in front from close range after Ronaldo’s shot had been parried into his path.
The Portuguese reward for disposing of Croatia came in the form of a quarter-final tie against Poland. Though Poland took an early lead through Robert Lewandowski, the deficit was erased by the youngest player in Portugal’s Euros squad, Renato Sanches, a recent Bayern Munich acquisition, who looked perfectly at home on the international stage aged just 18.
Ronaldo inspired his team-mates throughout the tournament
This time there was to be no extra-time winner, though, and so the game went to penalties. Demonstrated by captain Ronaldo, who willingly dispatched his country’s first penalty, Portugal were able to score each of their five attempts, which meant that when Jakub Błaszczykowski’s effort was saved by Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patrício it was all over for the Poles.
Still to beat a single team within 90 minutes, it mattered not one bit to a Portugal team preparing to face Wales in the semi-finals. A game underpinned by an intriguing narrative that placed Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale against each other, Europe watched on wondering which transfer record-breaking attacker would leave the greater impact on the tournament: the man whom Madrid bought for £75 million or the man who eclipsed such a figure.
Less than five years on from being ranked 117th in the world, Wales were able to match Portugal in a European Championship semi-final for the entirety of the first half. But when Portugal scored twice in the space of five minutes, early in the second period, the difference in quality became apparent.
First Ronaldo leapt highest at a Portugal corner, putting his all into a header that flew into the top corner of the Welsh net to give his side a one-goal lead, before his cross-shot was impudently prodded by Nani, beyond the already diving Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, granting Portugal an unassailable lead.
For all the pedantry surrounding Portugal’s method of reaching the semi-finals, Ronaldo’s team provided an emphatic reply against an admirable Wales team, and in doing so had surpassed 335 minutes since last conceding a goal. Having established a rhythm at both ends of the pitch, it was with great confidence that Portugal prepared for the Euro 2016 final, intent on upsetting hosts France.
France had reached the final themselves having comfortably topped a group including Switzerland, Albania, and Romania, before overcoming the plucky Republic of Ireland, tournament sweethearts Iceland, as well as world champions Germany en route to Saint-Denis. With Antoine Griezmann in scintillating form, sitting some way clear at the summit of the tournament’s top scorers list with six goals and two assists in half a dozen games, few in France doubted their country’s aptitude. The ice on hold for just 90 minutes longer.
The game began as any other, two sides cautious of allowing the other any freedom or initiative, but it seemed as though France may have accidentally stolen an advantage just eight minutes in, as Ronaldo fell to the floor injured.
Following a seemingly innocuous challenge from Dimitri Payet, Ronaldo was left writhing in agony, clutching his knee. Such a scene came as no great surprise to anybody familiar with the common footballer’s antics, though this time there came no sudden recovery.
Ronaldo was eventually able to get back to his feet and initially looked to run off his knock but his optimism lasted just a few minutes before he was forced to seek treatment and return to the field with his knee heavily strapped. Even with the troubled knee wrapped, Ronaldo could only remain on his feet a few minutes more. Though he made one last attempt to play through the pain – as the thought of being substituted when his country needed him the most made his lips tremble – he simply couldn’t go on and fell to the floor for a third time. As unwilling a substitution as you’re ever likely to see, if he was to go at all, he’d require carrying off.
Yet at the very moment Ronaldo’s clenched his teary eyes, every camera trained on the player’s pained expression, a moth flapped its way into view and began dancing in the wind, attempting to land on Ronaldo’s forehead. With the bright lights of the Stade de France having been left on overnight, thousands of silver moths had flocked towards the stadium and descended upon the pitch, covering advertising boards, corner flags, shirts. Now, in this moment of intense anguish, one tiny winged invader had taken centre stage.
Such an odd image to behold, many could only laugh as the poignancy of this great player’s heartbreak dispersed. What had the potential to be a moment of utmost clarity, a chance to unite enemies, to share a sympathetic shake of the head and say “not like this” instead had the world chuckling as a moth unwittingly stole the spotlight right from under (or just above) Cristiano Ronaldo’s nose: an act most footballers could only dream of.
But for all the amusement surrounding a scene so strange, the seriousness of Ronaldo’s injury and its wider effects on the game soon became clear once more as Ronaldo was stretchered off of the pitch, sobbing, having played every minute of the tournament up to now.
As the applause for the injured captain died down, the whistle sounded as a timely reminder from the referee: the game must go on. If Portugal were to become European champions they would have to do it without Ronaldo.
As the final continued, chances fell at the feet of both teams, though the majority to the host nation, only neither side could break the deadlock. While Hugo Lloris and Rui Patrício continued to protect their goals as valiantly as they had all tournament long, both too relied upon the posts to preserve their clean sheets.
Mission accomplished for Ronaldo
With Ronaldo refusing to go down the tunnel, instead positioning himself beside Portugal manager Fernando Santos on the touchline, manager and captain shared the managerial duties, taking it in turns to bark orders at the team. If his injured knee wouldn’t allow him on the pitch, Ronaldo would damn well stand as close to it as he could.
With seconds remaining in the second half, the game’s best chance fell to the feet of substitute André-Pierre Gignac. Having received a Patrice Evra cutback, Gignac took the ball under his control and feigned to turn right. Then, turning left, leaving Pepe helplessly sprawled on the grass, Gignac aimed his shot at the near post. Bouncing over the leg of Rui Patrício, the ball tumbled towards goal, only to be denied by the inside of the post. Gignac too had to deny his instincts to prevent himself from celebrating. Had it gone in, France would have surely been champions. The finest of margins had kept it from being so.
Instead, the game entered extra-time and there Portugal struck. With around 10 minutes separating the two sides and penalties, Portuguese striker Éder, a second-half substitute for Renato Sanches, received a pass from João Moutinho and immediately looked to turn Laurent Koscielny. Out-muscling the French defender, Éder shrugged him off to earn himself a few yards of space and instinctively shot towards goal.
From no less than 25 yards, even Éder would have filed the shot under ‘H’ for ‘hopeful’ but given what little time remained such gambles were welcomed. Then the net rippled. Catching Lloris cold, the ball sailed beyond his reach and into the bottom corner of the goal. Éder clenched his fists, stretched out his arms, and made for the touchline, mobbed by team-mates, substitutes and staff as he ran.
His very inclusion in the Portuguese surprise a divisive choice – having been selected on the back of a 15-game goalless spell with Premier League side Swansea – now, on the grandest occasion of his professional career, Éder had his first competitive international goal in the final of Euro 2016.
In the few remaining minutes, France fought to take the game to penalties but could do nothing to trouble Rui Patrício’s goal. The curtains fell on the final and from behind them emerged one of the tournament’s most unlikely heroes: Éder. Even without Ronaldo, Portugal found it within them to defeat the hosts.
Twelve years on from the heartbreak of being beaten finalists at home, a Portugal team bereft of their talismanic leader had inflicted a similar pain on France, and they couldn’t have been happier.
Should the players and coaches have dreamed their perfect final the night before, not one of them would have envisaged a scenario similar to the one witnessed in Paris – bar Éder perhaps. But even Ronaldo didn’t crave the headline on this occasion. His country had won their very first title, the trophy held aloft in his hands, Portugal were European champions.
“It was not the final I wanted,” Ronaldo admitted, “but I am very happy. It is a trophy for all the Portuguese.”
For all their unconcealable differences; their appearances, their styles, their teams, Messi and Ronaldo had, until this very year, shared one critical commonality: the absence of an international trophy. It seemed for all their ability, a title with their countries would be destined to evade them both.
But in 2016 the two men took a step further towards polarity, becoming an ever more fitting vision of the other’s antithesis. Though both were granted a chance better than most to become immortal, only one man could seize it. In doing so, Cristiano Ronaldo became a European champion. Lionel Messi, however, remained a runner-up.
But just as their dreams met their contrasting ends in 2016, irrespective of their results, two more were given life. A perpetual loop halted only by the permanence of retirement, the life of a footballer is fuelled in almost equal part by success and failure. With every title won comes the desire to protect it; the need to retain it. With every title lost comes an opportunity for retribution, a shot at redemption.
In 2018 a World Cup in Russia awaits, as does a fate fitting for both. Only this time, for the first time, the modern game’s two most prominent protagonists share nothing but the desire to win. Their most recent tournament experiences may have mutated the origins of their inspiration, one no longer chasing only a dream but now seeking to emulate other. Yet one thing remains certain for them both: with a World Cup to play for, neither player could possibly want it more.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp