Twelve years seems a long time for Brazil and Argentina to have been kept apart in major knockout tournaments. That gap, to be breached in Tuesday’s Copa America semi-final, probably says more about shared failings than anything else.
Back in 2007, when these heavyweights contested the final of South America’s showpiece event, Lionel Messi had just turned 20. His 32-year-old self is obliged to concede his adventures in international football since then have had more troughs than peaks.
He lost his first of four senior finals with Argentina that night in Caracas, when a Brazil who had allowed their superstars of the period, Ronaldinho and Kaka, to miss the tournament, took a lead after four minutes. They ended up thumping Argentina 3-0, one Dani Alves among the happy champions.
He and Messi will face off again, now as rival captains, in Belo Horizonte, united in their reflection that club football has been more generous to them than the international sphere, not least during the long, exhilarating spell when they were colleagues at Barcelona, and won six La Liga titles and three Uefa Champions Leagues together.
Alves, 36, has been looking agelessly energetic, part of a Brazil defence, that in this, their home tournament, are yet concede a goal. Contrast Messi’s Argentina, who managed their first from open play only after 184 minutes in. And, from that, pick out the favourites for Tuesday night’s contest, add in the strength of local support, the brittle self-belief of Argentina, and this looks like a semi-final that is Brazil’s to lose.
“Argentina will have to really sweat to get through our defence,” remarked Gabriel Jesus, the Brazil striker and scorer of the winning penalty in the shoot-out that squeezed his team into the last four after a goalless quarter-final against Paraguay.
A fair amount sweat has in fact been expended by all the semi-finalists to get this far, and the hope for the wider South American continent is that stalemates do not end up defining this Copa America. The last two finals were both won by Chile at Argentina’s expense, via penalties and now three of the last four teams in the 2019 edition have made their progress to the semis via spot-kick tie-breakers after 0-0 draws.
Some of the blunt finishing can be blamed on some poor playing surfaces, and Messi - whose Argentina actually won their quarter-final - has at times suffered from a bad bounce or a lack of slickness across the grass. But he has also, by his own acknowledgement, “not had my best Copa America”.
Given the perpetual national longing for a Messi who performs and inspires his country in the way he does Barcelona, that is dispiriting. But the fact Argentina have managed despite that shortcoming and despite having lost their opening match, 2-0 to Colombia, and drawn their next, 1-1 against a Paraguay who had penalty saved, might also argue they are finding ways to win beyond the hope that their skipper will conjure up solutions all on his own.
One of those ways is the opportunism of Lautaro Martinez, the Inter Milan striker who has become the antidote to the sort of suffocating pressure Argentina tend to bring on themselves if they go for too long without a breakthrough.
Lautaro took four minutes to score the opener against Qatar, seizing on a defensive error; he was even more alert in the quarter-final against Venezuela, putting Argentina 1-0 up after 10 minutes with a resourceful flick of his heel, his back to goal.
The 21-year-old now has six goals from his 10 caps.
Brazil, meanwhile, have made their own happy discovery in the course of the tournament. He is Everton, a nimble left winger, aged 23 and still playing his club football at home, for Gremio, although the shop window provided to him over the past two weeks at the Copa may very well accelerate a move to a major European league.
Everton came on as a late substitute in the tournament opener against Bolivia and registered his first Brazil goal. He scored his second and set up another in the 5-0 beating of Peru.
If you asked Alves right now who he would rather been marking on Tuesday night, either his dashing new teammate Everton or his old friend, the out-of-form Messi, Alves might just have to pause before he answered.