On Saturday, July 4th there will be fireworks. Yes we know the sky will be lit up in the United States but the stars I’ll be watching will be those in South America, Chile to be specific. Lionel Messi, the brightest star of them all, Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria and Arturo Vidal amongst many others will be on display. This fourth of July will be about the red, white and blue of La Albiceleste Argentina and La Roja Chile.
The statement “all to gain and everything to lose” cannot not be overstated. Chile, as hosts usually do, have carried the expectations of an entire nation all the way through the tournament. Not even Arturo Vidal’s attempt to literally crash the party could stop La Roja from getting to the final. Jorge Valdivia living up to his wonderful skill set and the re-emergence of Eduardo Vargas have been particularly welcome sights, and while the players are the focal point, Chile’s Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli’s story brings up an interesting plot point. He was given his chance to manage at a high level in South America by clubs in Chile. Even though he calls Chile home now, it must cross his mind what it’d be like to be on the other side managing his compatriots; Aguero, Mascherano and Messi. It’s the biggest game of his life and perhaps he’d prefer it to be against Brazil rather than the country of his birth, but allegiances have been forged and victory is all that matters now.
For many around the world, Chile winning the tournament for the first time on home soil would be the best way to end such a passionate tournament. Imagine the parties, the celebrations and the emotion if Claudio Bravo were to hoist the trophy aloft into the night sky. I’m getting wrapped up in it all and it’s not even started yet. We all fell in love with Chile at the World Cup in Brazil last year and they’ve taken it a step further this summer. The world awaits to see if they can finally get to the podium.
However, this final is not a case of good and evil. Argentina are not a team that we all particularly want to lose. For neutrals it’s easy to pick the underdogs or the “better team” or the good guys, so to speak. Chile and Argentina both play good football, except for Jara, Rojo and perhaps Medel they are all rather nice fellows and none is a real underdog. Both are reasonably well matched. The difference for many in this encounter is the one and only Lionel Messi. This is the best player of our generation and many call him the greatest of all time. Except for some tax fraud and at times seeming a bit of a prick, Messi isn’t the evil-doer that his only real competition Cristiano Ronaldo is. So it’s easy to want Argentina to win because it’s also easy to like the best player on the planet.
Argentina themselves are a bit of a Cinderella story, despite having the best squad in the tournament. Last time out they were eliminated by eventual winners Uruguay at the quarter-final stage despite being on home soil. Messi and co. were savaged by the media. Messi endured particular criticism with many saying he can’t be seen as the greatest until he leads his country to glory. Yes, Maradona won the World Cup which we all agree is a more difficult task. but he didn’t win the Copa America. If Argentina win this, it makes Messi’s case that much stronger and there are so many people who want his legacy cemented as early as possible.
The other redemption story is reserved for manager Tata Martino. Cast aside by Barcelona after a trophy-less season, he’s a man who wants redeem himself and prove to the world that he is indeed a good manager. By doing something that no Argentinian coach including the ‘God’ Maradona has done in twenty plus years, Martino would go down in the history books.
If I were a betting man (after my predictions league victories I should be), I’d say that the slight favourites are Argentina. The sadness of losing the World Cup Final to Germany last year still haunts them. Both Di Maria and Messi said they’d trade their club trophies for national honours. I find that a bit disingenuous but the fact that they said it at all does speak to how committed they are to the cause. Chile would have felt hard done by in their defeat to the Netherlands in the same tournament but the tears didn’t create a river like the Argentines’ did. The question is, can the passionate local support carry Chile past the best team in the tournament and the best player in the world? On Saturday we’ll see if it’s Arturo Vidal’s or Angel Di Maria’ heart sign splashed all over our TV screens (as well as the Billa Appliances commercial). For the losers, there will only be heartbreak without consolation. Whose side are you on?