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Lionel Messi’s legendary international career is finally getting the recognition it deserves

Few players have topped so many international tournaments in so many categories

Brazil v Argentina: Final - Copa America Brazil 2021 Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Lionel Messi’s first full senior level trophy win with Argentina was well deserved and has forced even his staunchest critics to reevaluate his international legacy. Messi had won it all for FC Barcelona, they said, but what about for his home country? Now, he has “taken the thorn out,” as he said, and can point to a major tournament win with Argentina.

While Messi’s exploits in this Copa América were awesome, it was hardly his first legendary individual performance at an international level.

For example, Messi has been the tournament’s top assister five of the past seven times he’s played a competition with Argentina. In the 2011. 2015. 2016. and 2021 editions of Copa América, plus the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Messi led (either alone or tied) the competition for most assists. Only the 2019 Copa América and the 2014 World Cup escaped his grasp in this regard.

Messi has also won three best player awards, at the 2014 World Cup, at the 2015 and 2021 editions of Copa América. He possibly could have also won it in 2016, but having previously refused to take the award in 2015 after losing the final, the committee may have chosen a different player to avoid an awkward situation.

He was in the team of the tournament fives times, three being when he won best player, plus additionally in 2007 2016.

In four tournaments, he was also the man of the match the most times out of anyone - 2014. 2015, 2016, and 2021.

Finally, he was top scorer for the first time in this latest tournament.

Amazingly, he ticked every box in the last Copa América. He was top scorer, top assister, most times man of the match, was in the team of the tournament, and won the best player award. Oh, and of course, he actually lifted the trophy as well. He’s perhaps the only player to do so at a major international tournament.

He contributed to nine of Argentina’s 12 goals, or 75%, which is astonishing. And Messi also scored in the shootout against Colombia, and of course captained the side. Argentine players expressed pure admiration at his leadership qualities, which have in the past been questioned by the media.

And let’s talk about Brazil and Argentina. Argentina, prior to this previous match, had amazingly never won a competitive game against Brazil in Brazil. It was also Brazil’s first loss at the Maracanã Stadium since 1950 (the famous Maracanazo, when Uruguay shocked Brazil in the World Cup.) It was also the first time Brazil had failed to win the Copa while playing at home, having been successful every other time they were hosts.

Even beyond history, this Brazil was thought to be much stronger than Argentina. Not only were they the current champions and playing at home. they were better in the FIFA ranking (#3 vs #8), valued in economic terms more by (913m vs. 646m), and seen as the favorites in the betting odds. Brazil also had won 11 of their past 12 games, drawing the other, and had outscored opponents 30-4. Not only that, but they had kept clean sheets in 7 of their last 9 matches. This was also Tite’s second defeat managing Brazil in a competitive match since being appointed in 2016.

Last of all, a word about the Summer Olympics. Messi won a gold medal in 2008. While it is not an honor on the level of Copa América, it should also be praised for what it is. Olympic teams are age restricted, but the age restriction is not very restrictive. Under-23 players are allowed, which is a higher age limit than almost any tournament. Most clubs have youth teams up until 19 years old, and FIFA’s highest age restricted World Cup is U-20. They are not youth players here, but full professionals who happen to be young. In addition, teams are allowed to field three players of any age, which is close to a third of a starting XI. For example, Brazil brought Ronaldinho for that 2008 tournament. Again, it’s not on the level of other tournaments, but it should get its due.

After that, we can talk about the historic nature of Messi to Argentina specifically. He is Argentina’s most capped player and its highest ever scorer. And he’s only one goal away from matching Pelé for most international goals for a South American. Keep in mind, South American qualifying usually has way more difficult games than those of any other continent. While there are less favored teams in the competition, they are far above a good percentage of Europe’s minnows such as the Faroe Islands, Andorra, and San Marino.

Many of those smaller European countries do not even have fully professional teams. By contrast, while Bolivia have historically been South America’s least fancied team, they are a class above those semi-pro teams and playing them in the altitude of La Paz is a huge challenge. Often, even Argentina and Brazil are quite happy to escape a visit to Bolivia with a draw. Argentina even lost 6-1 in La Paz with Diego Maradona as coach.

This is all a long way of saying: Messi’s international reputation should have been lauded even if he never won this last cup.

And yet...

Had Messi done all this, and not won a major international tournament, people would have probably attacked him yet again. It’s the cruel nature of the game, to be sure. But having won a trophy, it’s time to look back at those tournaments and marvel. Where is Messi’s place in history among the greatest international players ever?

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