The South American Championship, renamed and revived as the Copa América in 1975, was traditionally regarded as second-rate by powerhouses Brazil and Argentina, who would chase World Cup glory while former giants Uruguay recorded the most Copa triumphs. Even after the restructuring, doing away with the overkill of a two-year format, never had the tournament acquired as much poignancy and evoked as much passion as in 2015. That poignancy and passion converged on Santiago’s Estadio Nacional when favourites Argentina took on hosts Chile. Chile hadn’t won an international title in 99 years and Argentina had gone without a senior title for 22.
The lament in Lionel Messi’s pre-final statement, “As a team, we deserve to win something”, almost foretold another Argentinian fall at the last hurdle, less than 12 months after their defeat in the World Cup final against Germany. When Gabriel Batistuta scored twice to help Argentina lift the Copa in 1993, nobody could have foreseen the two-decade-long drought. If the special Centenary Copa in the US next year falls prey to the FBI’s investigations, this Argentinian golden generation will be near-certain of never winning a senior title. Its biggest star, Messi, will be 31 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Even if he makes it, Messi, who just won the treble with his club Barcelona, will be too old for a decent chance at mitigating his Albiceleste disappointment.
But the celebrations in Santiago were touched by Chile’s own national sorrow. The Estadio Nacional keeps a block of seats empty, unaltered since 1973, when Augusto Pinochet’s junta used the venue to house political prisoners after the coup that deposed Salvador Allende. The memorial says: “A people without memory are a people without a future.” Against that backdrop, it didn’t matter that a promising match turned out to be a messy, fouling affair, or that Chile won on penalties.