Lionel Messi’s Argentina defeated Tite’s Brazil 1-0 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, winning Copa America 2021 at their archrival’s home, prolonging the juju that has afflicted Brazilian soccer for most of the past 70 years.
In a match where Argentina had six shots at goal and two on target, it was Brazilian defender Renan Lodi’s awful blunder that allowed Argentine striker, Angel Di Maria, to go in uncontested and flip the ball easily over the surprised Brazilian keeper, Ederson, at the 22nd minute for the match’s only score.
In hindsight, it was pretty simple. Brazil had beaten Chile, Colombia, and Peru with a swagger that bordered on hubris and Tite augmented that headset with ridiculous coaching decisions that yet worked (playing for a 1-0 win by defending most of a half, changing line-ups at whim and without much reasoning, sticking with unproven players when the chips were down and lucking out they did not wither, winning matches at the 90+10 minute, and others 1-0 where Paqueta was the recipient of some Neymar magic to score the match’s only goal, but in the manner the stadium’s head janitor might have been able to trundle in a gifted score). So why not continue in this vein when meeting Argentina?
Maybe because treating an archrival who has been one’s historic kryptonite as a ho-hum opponent—particularly at a tournament final—is not a smart thing to do?
Argentina’s offensive strategy was to keep a high defensive line, get the ball across the midfield line, with possession or the long ball, and then see what happened. Their defensive strategy was to focus on destroying anything Neymar tried to create even if it meant the entire Albiceleste team took turns earning yellows for outrageous fouls on the slight striker. Brazil went into the match without a defensive plan save to keep an eye on Messi and repeating its offensive mantra—get the ball to Ney and then see what happened. The mix only worked for one side.
Brazil lost this match because they relied only on Neymar to carry them, used the wrong line-up for the wrong reasons, and they could not regroup when they fell behind with those two yokes as constants. Argentina won the match because they did not rely on Messi to carry them, clobbered Neymar consistently, and dropped and rolled while defending at the mere suggestion of a Brazilian’s presence. The latter strategies were abetted by the ref.
Messi did not have a particularly good game and muffed a one on one with Ederson in the waning moments of the match, the Argentine attempting a fancy goal as a cherry to top the win. Neymar had a better game, but not his best either. Then again, it defies logic to see such a scrawny striker survive the brutal punishment he is subjected to in each and every game.
But the juju of Brazilian soccer is always the same. With the most talented roster in football, the coach of the moment, in this case, the eminent Tite, who had won this tournament before with a settled cast, decided to experiment with his lineup throughout the tournament. Then, for the final, Tite chose to start the mercurial, and so far fortunate, Lucas Paqueta, Lodi over Alex Sandro or Eder Militao and Everton over Gabriel Barbosa. Sandro and Militao had excellent seasons coming into the Copa, the latter a breakout one. Barbosa was again the star of Brazilian football this season. Paqueta and Everton, are rising stars but not yet consistent enough to play in such a crunch game.
Lodi conceded the game’s only goal and Barbosa, who finally came in at the 76th minute, had Brazil’s best scoring chance of the match save Richarlison’s four. It seemed Tite had made some mental choices as the tourney wore on and then stuck to them despite the fact that they were demonstrably not working. By the time he figured it out and brought in four subs, it was way too late.
In the end, Argentina simply held on and managed the 68 remaining minutes. Yes, the officiating again left a lot to be desired and there is no question that if Messi had suffered the number and severity of fouls Neymar endured Brazil would have been playing shorthanded. As it was, the ref kept the foul tally at 22 fouls and 5 yellow-card infringements committed by Brazil and 19/4 respectively committed by Argentina (Papa had it at Brazil 32/6 and Argentina 48/9 and 3 reds for Nicolas Otamendi’s and Gonzalo Montiel’s horrific fouls on Neymar, and triple yellows to Rodrigo de Paul for his repeated fouls and then his playacting whenever a breeze blew by him). But Brazil’s self-inflicted wounds provided the greater damage tonight.
Yet, somehow in our sport there seem to be moments when the constellations align for what seem predetermined scenarios to occur. Who would have thought it, really? Argentina winning in the Maracana with a gifted goal and Brazil not scoring when they most needed to. Perhaps this was what Argentina, Messi, Alejandro Dominquez, and Gianni Infantino needed and it is certainly better that such a strange outcome occurred at the Copa than at the 2022 World Cup. But boy was it ominous to note Dominquez at each crucial game and Infantino in Rio rather than in London. Then again, an overnight, private jet flight might just get Gianni back in time for the Euro 2020 final, to boot. Italy beware!