EAST RUTHERFORD:

The day after he turns 37, Lionel Messi will return to the scene of one of the most disappointing moments in his stellar career when Argentina face Chile at MetLife Stadium in Group A of the Copa America on Tuesday.
Eight years ago, Messi was part of the Argentina team which lost the Copa America final on penalties to Chile at the New Jersey venue — with the striker missing his team’s first effort in the shoot-out.
It was the third straight final that Argentina and Messi had lost — after their 2014 World Cup loss to Germany in Brazil and their 2015 Copa final where Chile had triumphed on home soil.
The narrative at the time was focused on how Messi, who was shining on the club stage and collecting trophies in individual accolades with Barcelona, was unable to win with Argentina.
There were endless debates comparing how Diego Maradona had brought glory to his homeland, while also starring in Europe, and had earned a level of adoration from the Argentine public that Messi could never quite match.
Such was the pressure, such was the bitterness of that defeat, that Messi quit the national team before he had even got on the team bus to leave the Meadowlands.
“I think that’s it. The national team is over for me,” Messi told Argentinian television.
“It is for the good of everyone, for me and for all…I’ve tried a lot and we can’t win a title. I’m unable to get it, it hurts me more than anyone,” the striker added.
If Messi had any doubts about how loved he was by the Argentine public, his decision to quit, quickly exposed him to the true feelings of his compatriots.
When he flew back to Buenos Aires with the team, he was greeted by fans holding up signs declaring ‘Don’t go Leo’ and the country’s president at that time, Mauricio Macri, joined in the campaign calling him a “gift from God” and the “greatest thing Argentina have”.
Maradona himself joined in the campaign and fans poured on to the street urging him to rethink, which he quickly did, beginning the journey which led to their World Cup triumph in 2022.
That win not only ended the debates about Messi for good but, according to former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, now Messi’s coach again at Inter Miami, changed the man himself.
“He had a very heavy weight on his shoulders, and taking it off has transformed him on a day-to-day basis,”  Martino said recently.
And now, New Jersey again, Chile again, once more a Copa America campaign and this time the chance to complete a total turnaround with a third straight major tournament title for Argentina.
Not that Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni is in the mood for nostalgia or reflection with his focus purely on the present.
“Football goes on, the ball doesn’t stop. The stadium is the same, everything else is history, it doesn’t make much sense to go back. It’s an opponent we’ve played a lot, I don’t think it’s different to the others,” he said on Monday.
The world champions, clear favourites to win this Copa America, got their campaign off to a positive start with a 2-0 win over Canada in Atlanta last week.
Chile, not the force they were in 2016, having won just once in South American World Cup qualifying so far, were less impressive in their dull goalless draw with Peru in Texas.
Much travelled Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca took over the team in January, charged with turning around their fortunes and he expects his team to be highly motivated by taking on the world champions.
“That’s what I like about Chile that they take the initiative on the pitch,” said the 66-year-old.
“I can see Argentina being as aggressive as they always are. That forces us to be very focused, attentive defensively and it also forces us to develop our game, finding a way beyond the strategies that are usually there,” he said.
Scaloni declined to discuss his likely starting line-up for the game but there could be some rotation with veteran Angel Di Maria possibly rested and experienced defender Nicolas Otamendi an option for the back line.

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