By Gideon Long
Argentina head into Saturday’s Copa America final (11pm) seeking their first major silverware in 22 years while hosts Chile aim to end a century-long jinx by winning the trophy for the first time.
The two Andean neighbours meet in Santiago’s national stadium in a classic South American encounter steeped in history and rivalry.
These were two of the four founding nations of the South American Championship as it was first known back in 1916. Argentina thumped Chile 6-1 at that tournament, setting the tone for a century of Chilean pain.
Of their 36 competitive clashes since then, the Chileans have won just one – a World Cup qualifier in Santiago in 2008. They have never beaten Argentina at the Copa America in 24 attempts.
Argentina have lifted the trophy 14 times and if they win on Saturday will draw level with Uruguay as the most successful side in the tournament’s history.
Chile, in their 36 previous attempts to win the trophy, have come closest when they finished as runners-up four times.
For Argentina’s inspirational playmaker Lionel Messi, this is a golden opportunity to reproduce his success at club level for his country. His only previous titles with Argentina were at under-20 and Olympic level.
For his team as a whole, Saturday’s match is a chance to make up for last year’s World Cup final defeat by Germany and two consecutive Copa America final defeats at the hands of Brazil in 2004 and 2007.
“In the space of less than a year these guys are going to play their second final of a major tournament,” Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said after his side destroyed Paraguay 6-1 in the semi-finals.
“This is not the World Cup but even so, it’s the second most important tournament there is for us in this part of the world.”
Argentina are at pretty much full strength while Chile are still mulling how to replace centre-back Gonzalo Jara, suspended for his now infamous gesture in the quarter-finals when he was caught on camera sticking his finger up an opponent’s backside.
Jose Rojas replaced Jara in their semi-final against Peru, a 2-1 win, but was far from convincing and coach Jorge Sampaoli might reshuffle his backline again.
The match is a clash between the two highest-scoring sides in the competition – Chile found the back of the net 13 times on their way to the final while Argentina bagged 10.
Messi has yet to score in open play but if he pulls the strings like he did against the Paraguayans that will not concern his coach.
“If he makes three assists and they all end up as goals that’s fine,” Martino said. “He doesn’t need to be the top scorer in the team to be happy.”