After a month of exciting matches and seemingly endless football, the Copa América Centenario came to a close Sunday night. The final, just like the NBA Finals this year, was a repeat of last year’s final two. Argentina and Chile, who beat the two biggest teams in CONCACAF by a combined score of 11-0 earlier in the knockout rounds, squared off in East Rutherford New Jersey to determine the tournament’s champion, and the atmosphere matched that magnitude of the match.
The first half would have no shortage of drama, sadly, this was more because of the officiating than the play from either side. The first, and best scoring chance of the half fell to Argentina in the 21st minute. A poor giveaway from Chile’s backline put Gonzalo Higuaín through on goal. The Napoli striker was one-on-one with Claudio Bravo and seemed certain to put La Albiceleste in the lead, but just like he did in the 2014 World Cup Final and last year’s Copa América final, he sent his shot wide.
Seven minutes later, we had our first, but not last, sending off of the match. Marcelo Díaz, who had been booked earlier for a rash foul on Lionel Messi, was again on the wrong side of a call against the Ballon d’Or winner. As Messi pushed the ball around Díaz, the midfielder stood his ground and Messi hit the deck. The official, Heber Lopes, determined it was enough of a foul to warrant a second yellow card and Díaz was sent for an early shower.
So now that Chile were down to ten men, the match was almost certainly going to end in an Argentinian victory, right? Well they wouldn’t have a man advantage for much longer. In the 42nd minute, Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo went sliding through the back of Arturo Vidal to get the ball. While it looked dangerous at first look, replays showed that Rojo actually did make contact with the ball first and the majority of Vidal’s pain came from his boot getting stuck in the turf beneath him. That didn’t matter to Lopes as the Brazilian ref issued his second marching orders of the match, giving Rojo a straight red card.
As the half ended with the two nations still deadlocked, the players and even some coaches rushed towards the official to give them a piece of their mind. While I don’t speak Spanish very well, I’d like to think I can pick up on people’s emotions pretty quickly. Let me tell you, nobody seemed to happy with Lopes’ performance through the opening 45 minutes.
The force to adapt to a 10v10 match in the second half was either going to set the stage for an open, attacking style of play from both sides, or the two teams were going to struggle to establish a rhythm. Unfortunately for fans, it ended up being the latter. The two nations couldn’t seem to figure out how to play their possession, creative playing styles that made them the two highest scoring teams in the tournament.
The first real chance of the second half came in the 80th minute. Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas found himself on the right side of the penalty area, and he sent a hard low shot at Sergio Romero. The Manchester United keeper was up to the task, despite being relatively unused through the entire match.
Sergio Agüero, who came on for Gonzalo Higuaín during the second half, had Argentina’s best chance of the half five minutes later. The Manchester City striker skipped past his man on the edge of the box and had a clear look at goal. He stepped into his shot and promptly sent it high and wide, leaving the score deadlocked at 0-0.
The flurry of late chances continued in the 90th minute. First, Jean Beausejour did well to slide in a dangerous low cross to Alexis Sánchez in the middle of the penalty area. The Arsenal winger made contact, but his shot was expertly blocked and the rebound sprung Argentina on the counter attack. Messi tried to take on the several Chilean defenders by himself, but was only able to send hit shot wide at the end of it.
All of the late chances came to nothing as the sides would need extra time to determine a champion. Unlike the quarterfinals and semifinals, this match would not head straight to penalty kicks and would follow the typical extra time rules. One twist to the rulebook, however, allowed each manager an additional substitution during the 30 minutes of added time. This would be the third straight final for Argentina that went to extra time. The previous two saw them lose. Would this end the same way for Messi and co.?
An energetic start to the first period of extra time saw several crunching tackles and surprisingly only a handful of fouls. In the 99th minute, Vargas, who leads the tournament in goals, had an amazing chance to head Chile into the lead, but his header was denied by a diving save from Romero. A minute later, Sergio Agüero’s header looked destined for the back of the net, but Claudio Bravo produced an unbelievable finger tip save to push the shot over the bar.
The second 15-minute period came and went with a lot of bark but no bite. Surprisingly, the two most potent attacks in the tournament were both held scoreless through 120 minutes, and for a second straight summer, it was going to take penalty kicks to determine the winner between Chile and Argentina.
The shootout got off to a nightmare start for both sides as Arturo Vidal had his shot denied by Romero, and Messi followed up by blasting his shot way over the bar. It would be another three rounds before another player missed their shot as Lucas Biglia was denied by Claudio Bravo to give Francisco Silva the chance to win it for Chile. The 30-year-old sent Romero the wrong way and clinched a second straight Copa América title for Chile.
The loss extends Argentina’s 23-year trophy drought at the senior level, and continues Messi’s personal drought at the international level. After the winning penalty, you could see the devastation on Messi’s face, and you have to wonder how his international struggles will affect his legacy. With all of that being said, you still have to congratulate Chile on a hard fought victory.