Copa América 2024: Lionel Messi’s final ‘Last Dance’ with Argentina?

For just the second time in the tournament’s 108-year history, the Copa América will be played outside of South America.

As it did in 2016 for the special centenary, the United States will host this year’s expanded edition that will feature 16 teams rather than the customary 12 and will be something of a dress rehearsal for the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted in the US, Mexico and Canada.

Taking part will be the 10 CONMEBOL nations as usual, plus the US, Mexico, Jamaica and Panama, which all qualified as semifinalists of the CONCACAF Nations League.

Additionally, Costa Rica and Canada also qualified via the playoffs contested between the losing Nations League quarterfinalists.

This year’s tournament runs from June 20 to July 14.

The favorite

Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi’s Argentina is the favorite to lift the trophy for a record-breaking 16th time.

Three years ago, Messi helped the Albiceleste to glory at the Covid-delayed 2021 Copa América, beating host Brazil in the final, his first major trophy with the national team and the country’s first in 28 years.

That victory lifted the weight of expectation off his shoulders and more than likely acted as a catalyst for Argentina’s World Cup victory in Qatar 18 months later, with Messi finally getting his hands on the one trophy he had craved most.

Previously tormented by his failures with Argentina, even retiring temporarily from international football after a second straight Copa América final defeat to Chile in 2016, Messi told Argentine outlet Infobae recently that he’s now “achieved everything.”

There is the real possibility that the 2024 Copa América will be the last major international tournament Messi plays. After previously stating that the 2022 World Cup would be his last, Messi told Star+ in December that “time will tell.”

“As long as I feel I am well and that I am able to help, I will do it,” Messi, who will turn 37 during the Copa América, said. “Today, all I think about is to get well to the Copa América and play it. Fight for it again, as we always do, try to be the champions.

Ángel Di María is retiring after the tournament. - Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Ángel Di María is retiring after the tournament. - Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

“If we do well at Copa América and I can keep playing, maybe it happens.”

But Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who has overseen just four defeats in the team’s last 50 games, had a message for Messi fans: Don’t worry about the future, just enjoy the now.

“We Argentines are too melancholic and we are already thinking about the day when he is gone while he’s still playing,” Scaloni said last week. “So let’s enjoy him and we’ll see what happens tomorrow. I think the present is so important for the whole world – not only for Argentina – because, in the end, Leo plays for everyone who likes football.”

One player who will definitely be making his last tournament appearance for Argentina is Ángel Di María.

The 36-year-old has made 140 appearances for the national team and enjoys legendary status back home thanks to his winner in the final of the 2021 Copa América and a goal in the 2022 World Cup final.

Di María also won the U20 World Cup in 2007 and an Olympic gold medal at Beijing 2008.

The best of the rest

Brazil

Previously thought of as one of, if not the greatest football nation on earth, Brazil currently finds itself navigating a complicated transitional period.

The squad for the 2024 Copa América is largely inexperienced, with 15 players on less than 10 caps for their country. Only one player, West Ham’s Lucas Paquetá, has reached 10 goals for Brazil, making the omissions of Casemiro and Richarlison all the more surprising.

The Seleção is still reeling from the absence of star man Neymar Jr., who ruptured his ACL playing for the national team in October. Brazil’s all-time record goalscorer and a player with the ability to change a game in an instant, Neymar will be sorely missed for his contributions on the pitch, but also his leadership and status as an icon in an inexperienced dressing room.

Vinícius Jr. has been one of the best players in the world this season. - Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Vinícius Jr. has been one of the best players in the world this season. - Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Brazil recently suffered back-to-back World Cup qualifier set-backs for the first time in its history, before going on to lose a third in a row. That third defeat – a 1-0 loss to Argentina at the Maracanã - was historic, too, marking the first time Brazil had ever lost a home World Cup qualifier.

Interim coach Fernando Diniz was sacked in January, less than halfway through his one-year deal, and replaced by journeyman manager Dorival Júnior, who has so far overseen narrow wins against England and Mexico and draws against the USA and Spain.

But despite the team’s recent struggles, the pressure and expectation will still be high back home – in particular with Vinícius Jr. leading the attack.

The Real Madrid forward has enjoyed a sensational season for Los Blancos, helping the team to a La Liga and Champions League double and making himself the favorite to win the Ballon d’Or.

Uruguay

Perennial overachiever Uruguay once again goes into a Copa América among the favorites to win the title.

The nation of just 3.5 million people holds the joint record alongside Argentina for most Copa América titles won with 15.

Under new manager Marcelo Bielsa, who took charge in May 2023, a new, youthful Uruguay has made a tremendous start to World Cup qualifying, winning four of its six matches so far – including 2-0 wins over Brazil and Argentina – to sit second in the standings.

Marcelo Bielsa has made a great start as Uruguay manager. - Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images
Marcelo Bielsa has made a great start as Uruguay manager. - Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

While Bielsa has called up many inexperienced and uncapped players during his tenure so far to better implement his high intensity press, national team icon Luis Suárez made the cut and will be supported by a talented cast that includes José Giménez, Ronald Araújo and Federico Valverde.

The host

The USA enters the Copa América off the back of winning a third straight Nations League title, beating bitter rival Mexico 2-0 in the final less than two months ago.

However, preparations for the tournament got off to the worst possible start with a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Colombia in Washington.

After the defeat, goalkeeper Matt Turner said the team needed to “bounce back in a big way,” and a much-improved performance followed in a morale-boosting 1-1 draw against Brazil.

Despite boasting several talented players, including Tim Weah, Christian Pulisic, Yunus Musah and Folarin Balogun, serious questions remain about whether the US men can consistently compete against teams outside of the weaker CONCACAF bubble.

The US won a third straight CONCACAF Nations League title. - Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
The US won a third straight CONCACAF Nations League title. - Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Fortunately for the US, the group draw has been kind. First up is a weak Bolivia side which has endured an abysmal start to World Cup qualifying, losing five of its first six matches, before a clash against familiar CONCACAF opponent Panama.

The sternest test will come last against Uruguay, but Gregg Berhalter’s side should have enough quality to at least advance to the knockout stages. Anything less could be a disaster as the team attempts to drum up support across the country ahead of a home World Cup.

Dark Horses

Chile

Only a couple of months ago, you will likely have been hard pressed to find a Chile fan optimistic enough to predict that the team would make it past the group stages.

The failure to qualify for back-to-back World Cups in 2018 and 2022 has been a bitter pill to swallow for everyone involved after the country’s ‘Golden Generation’ won successive Copa Américas in 2015 and 2016 and reached the final of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Since Juan Antonio Pizzi was sacked as manager after the team missed out on Russia 2018, three successive coaches failed to get a tune out of the team – then Ricardo Gareca was hired.

Chile is finding form at the right time. - Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images
Chile is finding form at the right time. - Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Gareca, who impressively took Peru to the 2018 World Cup and the final of the 2019 Copa América, has had an immediate impact on the team since taking over in January, leading La Roja to comprehensive 3-0 wins over Paraguay and Albania and pushing France close in a 3-2 defeat in Marseille.

Big names such as Alexis Sánchez and Claudio Bravo remain in the squad, but there is no place for Arturo Vidal or Gary Medel.

It might be a bit much to say expectations are now high, but fans are finally excited about watching La Roja playing again.

Colombia

Colombia arrives in the US as arguably the most in-form team in the tournament, if not the world.

Los Cafeteros are currently on a 23-game unbeaten run that includes wins in their last eight matches. With three wins and three draws so far in World Cup qualifying, the team has soared to third place in the standings to put the failure of reaching Qatar 2022 behind it.

Colombia is on a long unbeaten run. - Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Colombia is on a long unbeaten run. - Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Liverpool’s Luis Díaz will be Colombia’s main man at the Copa América, supported by well-known veterans such as James Rodriguez, David Ospina and Yerry Mina.

The main issue for Colombia is its brutal potential route to the final, during which it will likely have to face Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

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