The prospect of leading his country to a first major title in 22 years is driving Lionel Messi as Argentina meet Chile here Saturday in a Copa America final clash of the golden generations.
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The three-week South American football showpiece reaches its climax at the Estadio Nacional with a dream final pitting the favourites against the hosts, and the stakes could not be any higher for both sides.
Messi heads a star-studded Argentina desperate to write their own piece of history by winning a first international title since 1993, 12 months after an agonizing defeat to Germany in last year’s World Cup final.
Chile, meanwhile, are anxious to finally shed their unwanted tag as the perennial nearly men of South American football, ending 99 years of hurt by winning a first Copa America.
An Argentine triumph would crown a remarkable season for Messi, who less than a month ago completed a treble-winning campaign with Barcelona with victory in the Champions League final.
It would also erase the sense of frustration Messi has often felt at international level, 10 years after he led Argentina to victory as a teenager in the 2005 Under-20 World Cup.
“This generation is desperate to win a title with the national team,” Messi told reporters on the eve of the Copa America. “As a team, we deserve to win something and it would mean so much after the World Cup last year where we came so close.”
Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, who featured in an Under-20 World Cup-winning side in 2007, believes defeat is not an option.
“If this generation of players don’t win anything we’re going to regret it for the rest of our lives,” the Manchester City star said.
After a series of unconvincing performances in the first phase, and a nervy win on penalties against Colombia in the quarter-finals, the signs are that Argentina have hit form at the right time.
Messi produced a scintillating man-of-the-match display in Tuesday’s 6-1 semi-final destruction of Paraguay, setting up three goals and running the opposition ragged with a virtuoso performance.
Standing in Messi’s way however are a Chilean team who know they may never have a better chance to finally end their nation’s long wait for a trophy.
Since a 6-1 defeat to Argentina in the inaugural South American Championship in 1916, Chile have endured nearly a century of failure.
While Argentina will join Uruguay as the most successful side in the tournament’s history if they win on Saturday, with 14 titles, Chile are still waiting for their first crown after finishing runners-up four times.
Chile have also never beaten Argentina at the Copa America in 24 attempts. Chile’s own golden generation — featuring the likes of Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Claudio Bravo — believe Saturday represents a now-or-never moment.
“This group of players has grown a lot, it’s the right time to win something,” Juventus midfielder Vidal said earlier this month. “There is pressure but we are very calm and anxious to show we are a strong team.”
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