Ordinarily a rather unnecessary affair, the third-place play-off at this year’s Copa América was not without drama but it wasn’t Argentina’s 2-1 victory over Chile that generated the headlines rather the red card shown to Lionel Messi that sparked controversy.
Early goals from Sergio Agüero and Paulo Dybala had put a sprightly Argentina in firm control against the ageing Chilean side, who had beaten them to the two previous Copa Américas, before card-happy Paraguayan referee Mario Diaz de Vivar sent off Lionel Messi and Gary Medel.
The pair have history since Medel gave Messi an unpunished boot in the chest during Chile’s 2015 triumph but nothing like that level of violence when the Argentina captain gave a slight shove chasing a loose ball prompting Medel to barge Messi with his chest. The look of shock on Messi’s face upon seeing the red card only compounded by the officials opting not to check the incident again with VAR.
For Medel, the pitbull who plies his trade on the edge of what a referee will deem excessive, it was a surprise but for Messi, whose only other career red card came on his Argentina debut 14 years prior, it was a decision that went far deeper.
Critical of the officiating after Argentina’s semi-final defeat to Brazil when two penalty claims were deemed unworthy of a VAR check, Messi felt this could have been personal and after La Albiceleste saw off Chile to collect third-place there was no sign of their captain.
“I didn’t go because of a bit of everything. I think that we shouldn’t form part of this corruption, for the lack of respect they’ve shown us in this tournament,” an irate Messi told the press.
“We leave with the feeling that we could have done more, that against Brazil and today [against Chile] have been our two best games.”
Facing a suspension for the next CONMEBOL dates and casting doubt over whether Peru stand any chance against Brazil with the odds so stacked in their favour, South America’s governing body responded to Messi in no uncertain terms.
“In football, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and a fundamental pillar of fair play is accepting the result with loyalty and respect,” a statement read.
“The same goes for refereeing decisions, they are human and can always improve. It’s unacceptable that from roots of the competition, where 12 teams compete in equal conditions, there have been unfounded accusations made that are untrue and put the integrity of the Copa America in question.
“[These accusations] represent a lack of respect to the competition, to the footballers taking part, and to the hundreds of CONMEBOL professionals who have worked since 2016 to make our organisation transparent and professional and to develop South American football.”
The standard of officiating at the Copa América and the confusing use of VAR leaves a bitter taste but after a dreadful start to the tournament, Argentina have managed to take positives. The sense of injustice provides context to La Albiceleste’s extended trophy drought and in the performances against Brazil and Chile there were shoots of fresh optimism.
Sergio Agüero’s partnership with Lautaro Martínez during the Copa has been one such reason but with the Inter youngster suspended Paulo Dybala got his chance and in tandem with captain Messi, the three shone.
Messi’s quick free-kick after 12 minutes released the alert Agüero and the Manchester City striker rounded Gabriel Arias to put Argentina in front before Giovani Lo Celso, another who promises to be a central part of La Albiceleste’s future, slipped in Dybala to leave the Chilean defence in his wake and dink the ball over the the onrushing goalkeeper.
Two-nil up with barely 20 minutes on the clock against the side Argentina couldn’t find a way past in two previous Copa América finals provided reason for cheer and when the previously incompatible Messi and Dybala combined for what was almost a spectacular third, the Juventus forward volleying narrowly wide, it looked like a rout was possible.
However, amid a flurry of fouls which Mario Diaz de Vivar couldn’t control the game’s major talking point came eight minutes before the half time whistle.
Ten against ten Argentina remained the better side for the most part but when Diaz de Vivar awarded a penalty to Chile just before the hour mark after rewatching a Lo Celso hack with the VAR not only did it further antagonise Lionel Scaloni’s it handed Chile a lifeline.
Arturo Vidal smashed the ball past Franco Armani and although Scaloni substituting Dybala, Agüero and Lo Celso seemed to invite further pressure, Argentina held on for the win.
A positive way for Argentina to end the tournament but still only the beginning of a long rebuilding process. Scaloni will remain in charge until the end of the year with several key friendlies before the start of CONMEBOL’s long World Cup qualification process. That could begin without Messi due to suspension and may yet be under new management so the future remains uncertain.