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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Chile Edge Argentina On Penalties To Win Copa America

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After 99 years, it came down to Alexis Sánchez against Sergio Romero from 12 yards. The Arsenal forward attempted a Panenka, scuffed it badly, and scored anyway as the goalkeeper dived to his left. Misses from Gonzalo Higuaín and Éver Banega in the shootout proved decisive and, finally, Chile, one of the four participants at the inaugural Copa América, had a first international trophy. For Argentina the drought goes on: 22 years since their last trophy and an increasing sense that this gifted generation of players will remain unfulfilled.

Where better to achieve that first win than at home, asked Claudio Bravo on Friday; this wasn’t just about doing it in front of local fans. Few stadiums in the world have such symbolic value as Santiago’s Estadio Nacional in being representative of their nation. Behind the goal at one end a block is left perpetually empty, the benches still as they were in 1973 when the stadium was used as a prison camp after the coup through which Augusto Pinochet seized power. It was here that November that Chile kicked off against no opposition in a notorious World Cup qualifying play-off after the USSR refused to take to the field in a stadium in which leftists had been murdered a matter of weeks earlier. Above it is the legend Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro – a people without a memory is a people without a future.

The atmosphere before kick-off was extraordinary, small dashes of albiceleste breaking a great sweep of red, each of the home fans waving the national flags they’d been given as they came in. And beyond the stands, visible through the haze of dust and pollution for the first time in the tournament, loomed the rocky bulk of the Andes, an appropriately grand backdrop to the biggest game in Chile’s history.

Some, it seems, got carried away in their nationalist fervour, with Lionel Messi’s family having to be moved into a television cabin at half-time after being abused and having objects thrown at them in the stands. There were further reports that his elder brother, Rodrigo, was punched.

Chile had looked anxious in the semi-final against Peru, as though snatching at the prize as it came within touching distance, but here they started with a fury. Any thought that Jorge Sampaoli might compromise on his pressing principles and opt for something more conservative rapidly disappeared and for a time Argentina were unsettled. Had Arturo Vidal made better contact with a volley as Sánchez’s half-blocked cross dropped to him, the hosts might have had an early lead, but his mis-hit effort was scrambled away by the goalkeeper Romero.

The one change Sampaoli did make was to push the midfielder Marcelo Díaz extremely deep, almost as a third centre-back, which freed Gary Medel to leave the back-line and pursue Messi at times when he dropped deep. Predictably, he was booked before half-time, having caught Messi in the midriff with a swinging boot. The plan worked; this was a triumph for the coach, who was born just 35 miles from Messi’s home in Rosario. Messi had his quietest game of the tournament – his 63 touches in normal time were his fewest of this Copa América.

One of the reasons Argentina were so cowed was due to Chile’s aggression, which clearly outraged their coaching staff. This tournament has seen Chile chart a course from romance via the decision not to suspend Vidal over his arrest on drink-driving charges and Gonzalo Jara’s digital provocation of Edinson Cavani, to the pragmatic decision to try to kick Argentina off their stride. By half-time, all three central defenders had been booked and a game that had begun brightly had degenerated into something far scrappier.

By the second half, this felt far more like the Argentina of the World Cup than the side which had eviscerated Paraguay so thrillingly in the semi-final. They were defensively more secure than they had been, but lacked the fluidity and fluency of movement that characterised them even in the quarter-final against Colombia. Messi, in particular, was diminished, a frustrated and often isolated figure on the right, shirt untucked, shoulders slouched.

As Argentina became increasingly frustrated, Chile had their chances – a Vidal effort that was charged down, a Sánchez volley that flashed across the face of goal – but the last clear opportunity of normal time fell to Argentina. Messi, at last finding space, broke and laid in Ezequiel Lavezzi, but his low cross was too far in front of the other substitute, Higuaín, who could only screw the ball into the side netting.

Had he scored that chance, and had he scored the chance in the Maracana in the World Cup final last year, this generation might be have gone down as one of the greatest. As it was, though, it was Chile who celebrated, the national anthem proudly sung as flares saluted the victory.

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