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Sports

Argentina, Chile seek Copa America glory

media Lionel Messi will captain Argentina in their Copa America final against Chile. AFP/Pablo Porciuncula

Argentina and hosts Chile will contest the final of the Copa America. Both sides are desperate for the honour. Chile have never claimed the crown while Argentina - beaten in last year's World Cup final - are desperate for their first piece of silverware in more than two decades.

Argentina want glory to satisfy a generation. Chile seek it to end nearly 100 years of hurting.

The Copa America final on Saturday at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago carries these two strands of a narrative that has been building for nearly a month.

The Argentina skipper Lionel Messi will be expected to star in the final. After all, that's what he normally does. For Barcelona he was instrumental in their surge to a Spanish league and cup double as well as the Uefa champions league title.

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Defensive lynchpin Javier Mascherano was also on that voyage in Europe with Messi. The duo are one game away from an impressive sweep of silverware.

Messi has gone more than 900 minutes without scoring a goal from open play in an international game.

But that data is misleading. The 28-year-old had a hand in four goals as Argentina thrashed Paraguay 6-1 in the semi-final.

"Hopefully I can score in the final but it really doesn't matter if I score or if one of my teammates does," he said. "The most important thing is that we have accomplished our prime objective, which was to qualify for the final."

Gary Medel, nicknamed "Pitbull", will be at the forefront of the fight to restrict Messi.

The Inter Milan midfielder is capable of snapping into tackles and destroying attacks. And yet he has a featherlight touch and can launch rapid counters with his piercing range of passing. Their battle will be replicated elsewhere.

Mascherano will try to contain Chile's Arturo Vidal who has scored three goals in the tournament, one behind teammate Eduardo Vargas.

But the omens don't look good for Chile.

They've lost in their four previous visits to the Copa America final. They've not won the Copa America in its 99-year history. Chile have also never beaten Argentina at the Copa America in 24 attempts.

That's a heft of historical hurting. Chile's own golden generation - featuring the likes of Vidal, Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez and Real Sociedad's Claudio Bravo believe the collective can impose its will on the Argentine array of stars.

"This group of players has grown a lot, it's the right time to win something," Vidal said. "There is pressure but we are very calm and anxious to show we are a strong team."

Pressure and strength are epithets that have hovered over the career of Lionel Andres Messi Cuccitini.

Expected to be decisive in every match, he has delivered more often than not. Barcelona supporters are able to not only review the triumphs of last season but also periods of domination under former boss Pep Guardiola in which they racked up 14 trophies in four years.

Argentina fans can't drool in the same way. World Cup wins of 1978 and 1986 are fading into the mists of time. The defeat in last year's World Cup final to Germany provided the ammunition for the critics who say that Messi can only be considered a great of the game once he - like compatriot Diego Maradona and the Brazil star Pele - has inspired his national side to major triumphs.

It appears hidebound to define a player in such terms especially when the game has developed.

"I find the comparisons incredibly difficult to make," said Jonathan Wilson, editor of the football magazine The Blizzard. "But I think one thing you can say about Messi is that he exists in an obvious three with Pele and Maradona. Quite how you want to arrange them in the pantheon depends on what you prioritise.

"People say Messi hasn't won the World Cup. He hasn't won the Copa America but by the same token Maradona never won the European Cup with the sides he played with in Europe ... so which is more important?"

Nearly 10 years ago Messi donned the shirt of the senior national squad for the first time. The game against Hungary lasted less than five minutes. On as a second-half substitute, he was sent off for elbowing Vilmos Vanczak. On Saturday Messi will play his 103rd game for Argentina. During that time 46 goals have been scored.

"This generation is desperate to win a title with the national team," Messi said on the eve of the final. "As a team, we deserve to win something and it would mean so much after the World Cup last year where we came so close."

A 15th Copa America trophy would enable Argentina to join Uruguay as the most successful side in the tournament's history. It might also silence those who continue to doubt Messi's greatness. 

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