Lionel Messi, battered by Chile and ‘playing with pain,’ gets lift from Argentina teammates at Copa América

Argentina's Lionel Messi (10) controls the ball during a Copa America Group A soccer match against Chile in East Rutherford, N.J., Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Lionel Messi returned to the scene of his worst Copa América nightmare, and step by step, whack by whack, Chilean by Chilean here on Tuesday night, the nightmare nearly recurred.

For 87 minutes, Argentina and Messi, who’d been struck by a “sore throat and fever” in recent days, dueled with Chile, and couldn’t break through.

As they labored through a choppy game, the dark poetry of a 0-0 stalemate swept through MetLife Stadium. It was the same exact result, at the same exact place, that broke Messi eight years earlier.

It hung over 81,106 fans and two dozen players, until one, Lautaro Martínez, banished it to the past for good.

Martínez slapped in a dramatic late winner to send Argentina to the 2024 Copa América knockout rounds, and to prove for the umpteenth time that this Argentina, Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina, the liberated version of Argentina, is completely different from the one that lived through the nightmare.

The nightmare was June 26, 2016, and it left Argentines everywhere devastated. For a third consecutive summer, their team had reached a major tournament final; for the third consecutive summer, they lost. Messi missed a penalty after 120 brutal minutes of scoreless soccer against Chile. In the aftermath, his distraught body keeled over; his face twisted in pain. He was so shattered that he quit the national team that night. He later reversed his decision, but no one involved could reverse or erase the memory.

So it drove every narrative this week as Messi returned to MetLife for the first time since that harrowing night.

Then it drifted toward the front of minds as the same two South American neighbors, wearing the same colors, led by some of the same protagonists, canceled each other out once again.

Chile contained and corralled Messi. Midfielders surrounded him. Defenders kicked him. Even Alexis Sanchez chased Messi all over the field, and hurled his body into challenges.

As a unit, they shifted side to side in a mid-to-low block, shutting off passing lanes.

And they expertly walked a yellow-card line, fouling Messi but never with quite enough force to earn a caution.

Midway through the first half, Gabriel Suazo blasted him from behind on the right touchline, and Messi instantly turned to the bench for treatment. For nearly two minutes, a medical staffer massaged his right adductor area. For minutes thereafter, fans feared that, a day after his 37th birthday, Messi wasn’t right — and the fears weren’t entirely unfounded.

“I started the game playing with discomfort, I wasn't completely loose,” Messi later admitted. Then his leg muscles got tight. “I didn't feel a sharp pain or anything like that, but it did get stiff,” he said. “It was hard for me to move freely, and it was a bit uncomfortable."

He was also frustrated. When he heard the halftime whistle, he sought out the referee to complain, presumably about the beating he was taking.

He did still create a few chances. He skimmed the outside of a post with a 25-yard drive. He wriggled away from Chileans, prompting adoring chants from thousands of fans. He did not necessarily play poorly.

But he’d been neutralized and bruised. His aging legs weren't fully functioning. And it was in situations like these that, for years, including in 2016, Argentina would falter. Messi’s teammates would freeze. Copa América or World Cup hopes might fizzle.

But that was then. In Brazil, and Qatar, and now in the United States, teammates rise to the rescue.

Luck has also smiled on a team that once seemed cursed. There wasn’t much skillful about Tuesday’s winner, a product of penalty-box pinball. And there wasn’t much graceful about Argentina’s overall performance.

“It wasn’t an easy match,” Scaloni, the Argentina coach, said postgame.

It was “tough” and “complicated,” his Chile counterpart, Ricardo Gareca, agreed.

But it was exactly the type of match that, in a previous era, would have devolved into bedlam. Here, instead, Argentina stayed calm and in control. Martínez pounced on a chance, and wheeled away toward the corner flag as some 70,000 Albiceleste fans roared. Teammates sped toward him and mobbed him. And Messi, having taken the corner that led to the goal from the opposite side, jogged silently toward them. He was the last to arrive. He was, for once, out of the spotlight. And Argentina was ahead.

Argentina's Lautaro Martinez celebrates scoring his side's opening goal against Chile during a Copa America Group A soccer match in East Rutherford, N.J., Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Argentina's Lautaro Martinez celebrates scoring his side's opening goal against Chile during a Copa America Group A soccer match in East Rutherford, N.J., Tuesday, June 25, 2024.

They will, of course, still want him and need him to drive them to another Copa América title. His health is officially a concern. Yes, he played all 90 minutes, but the leg is “bothering him,” he said. “I hope it’s nothing serious.” He will reportedly undergo tests Wednesday. He could rest Saturday against Peru, especially with Argentina already confirmed as a quarterfinalist.

But now, unlike on that nightmarish 2016 night, he has a team capable of lifting him just as he so often lifts them.