Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday
11:45 AM UTC
Game Details
 By Sam Kelly

Would winning the Copa America cement Leo Messi's legacy in football?

Eleven out of 10. That was the mark given by Argentine daily newspaper Ole for Lionel Messi's performance in the final of this year's Copa del Rey as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 with a wonder goal from the striker. "Messi," Martin Caparros wrote in his match report, "decided to dedicate himself to showing why he's the best player in history."

For years, Messi's countrymen seemed the only people who didn't truly treasure him, but that perception has long since changed.

True, there is -- and always will be -- a debate about whether the level of praise Caparros heaped on him last week is merited. But the perception of Messi as a player who saved his best for his club and never stepped it up for Argentina was years past its sell-by date, even before he blew it out of the water with a string of performances that took a surprisingly misfiring team to the World Cup final last year.

The fact remains that this generation of players still lacks a title at full international level, and rightly or wrongly, that will weigh more heavily on the Barcelona star and his legacy than any others.

That's probably as true of Messi's own opinion of himself as of those of many onlookers. The desire for the current generation to win something with Argentina and end the nation's wait for a senior international trophy (they haven't won one since the 1993 Copa America) was summed up nicely by Javier Mascherano last week, when in the preview to Barcelona's Champions League final clash with Juventus he was asked whether losing that trophy was the worst thing that could happen to a player.

"Losing a World Cup final is worse," he ruefully replied. He might have been on club duty, but the wound opened in the Maracana in July clearly still hurts.

In Argentina, the buildup to the 2015 Copa America has felt more muted than the buildup for the most recent one, in 2011, and two reasons appear to be contributing factors: first and most obviously, the 2011 Copa America was held in Argentina.

Leo Messi still dreams of winning a senior international trophy with Argentina.

Secondly, Saturday's Champions League final meant three of the main players -- and one who has become an important substitute under current manager Gerardo Martino -- haven't joined training (Messi, Mascherano and Carlos Tevez are the key men, with Roberto Pereyra the other). The media excitement is likely to gear up more noticeably when they, especially Messi, join the party.

The Champions League final itself has also hogged a lot of media attention, as there's nothing Argentina's media likes more than to feel their game is at the centre of the world's attention. That's an easy sensation to feel when key players on both teams are Argentine.

La Albiceleste's debut in the Copa America will come on Saturday against Paraguay, and if that doesn't make people back home sit up and pay attention (it will, don't worry), the following Tuesday certainly will; that's when Argentina take on their neighbors and oldest rivals, Uruguay.

The problem with generating real excitement in the Copa America here is that the format, with only four sides going out at the group stage, means things won't really get interesting for Argentina until the knockout stage. Their group is completed by Jamaica, and it would be a surprise -- both on current form and historical clout -- if Argentina and Uruguay don't end up the top two sides in the group.

For the moment, then, the question, "What are people in Argentina saying about Messi ahead of this Copa America?" is hard to answer. People in Argentina aren't thinking night and day about the Copa America in the same way they were this time last year about the World Cup. But when they do talk about the tournament, confidence is high.

Argentina have the best player in the world and did better than any other side from the Americas at the most recent World Cup. A note of caution is inevitable, as they've been the best side at previous Copa Americas in this century, only to come unstuck against Brazil in the final in 2004 (when they let in a stoppage time equaliser before losing on penalties) and 2007.

But last year's World Cup might have provided a psychological tipping point, both for the team -- it was the first time since 1990 that Argentina got past the quarterfinals at a World Cup -- and for Messi, who, while he didn't lift the trophy, was able to put in a big tournament performance that displayed why he's so central to the team.

Messi ended the 2014 World Cup as the tournament's best player but could not claim the ultimate prize for his country.

This year's Argentina side is clearly building on the (qualified) success of the previous year. Gerardo Martino has called up 14 of last year's World Cup squad for the Copa America, and most of the starting XI will be familiar to those who watched them in Brazil. He has opted for a little more variety in the supporting roles, perhaps most notably bringing in Javier Pastore, who has been impressive in friendlies under Martino (including a decent display Saturday in a 5-0 win over an admittedly unimpressive Bolivia).

For all the adjustments made to the squad as a whole, though, the debate is never framed in terms of which players should make up Argentina's strike force; rather, it's which players should accompany Messi up front.

Pastore's involvement is suspected to be an effort to provide more support and a different approach when more runs from midfield are needed.

In that respect, Messi has already had one tournament for Argentina that demonstrated his talents; he was the most influential player at the World Cup, in as much as every side who played against Argentina adapted its game plan to combat him (with the possible exception of Nigeria, who tried to go toe-to-toe with Argentina and were beaten anyway). Undeniably, this year is a chance to gain at least some revenge for the hand fate dealt the team last year -- and also Messi's chance to win something with his country.

Does Messi need an international trophy to count as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- players ever? Caparros clearly doesn't think so. For what it's worth, I agree with him.

Imagine, if you will, Argentina had edged Germany in last year's final. It could have happened without the match itself being wildly different; the referee could have awarded a penalty for Manuel Neuer's second-half collision with Gonzalo Higuain, for instance.

Would that have made such a huge difference to Messi's greatness or otherwise as a player? I've never entirely held with the idea that the World Cup is the only legitimate test of a player's all-time greatness, anyway. Stephane Guivarc'h won a World Cup. Would you have him in an all-time XI ahead of Alfredo Di Stefano, who, for a variety of reasons, never played in one?

Undeniably, winning something with the senior national team would help toward Messi's legacy, in the eyes of people who talk about such things. Winning the Copa America wouldn't be as good as a World Cup, but it would be a lot better than anything else Argentina have managed since 1993.

They couldn't ask for a better player to help them do it.

Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.