In a summer filled with international football, the two most prestigious national tournaments besides the World Cup have come to a close. Argentina overcame their heated rivals, Brazil, in the 2021 Copa America Final, while Italy defeated their tough anniversaries, England, in the Final of Euro 2020 (still called “Euro 2020” for marketing purposes).
For two nations who hold such an ancestral and historical bond, it seems poetic that both Argentina and Italy win their respective continental tournaments in the same year. One could suspect that Pope Francis (the holder of the Church’s throne and the Vatican City in Rome, who is also of Argentine descent) may have said a few prayers to give each team a slight divine advantage.
Euro 2020 Final
Between Italy and England, it appears fitting that both these teams meet in the final. They have been the two best of the tournament overall, though they definitely had to fight for their spots in the showpiece match.
From where we left off in the quarterfinals, Italy met Belgium (the best team in the world, according to FIFA Rankings) and taught them a lesson on how to play football before facing familiar foe Spain in the semifinals. This unstable yet very dangerous Spanish team gave Italy a run for their money, but the Italians just edged their opponents on penalties.
England, on the other hand, utterly smashed Ukraine in the quarterfinals ahead of their semifinal meeting against Denmark, the dark horse and darlings of this tournament. While the Danish were no doubt England’s toughest opponent prior to the final, the English did well enough to defeat them setting up a historic matchup between Italy and England, a replay of the famous Euro 2012 quarterfinal amongst these two nations.
Italy have arguably been the better of the two teams throughout the tournament and have a much larger trophy cabinet. However, the final was to be held at the famed Wembley Stadium in London; alongside the immense media attention created by the English press, England were slight favorites.
The rallying cry among the fans was “It’s Coming Home!,” the chorus from the song “Three Lions” by Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds which cheers England on to achieve success for the first time since the 1966 World Cup. The viral phrase “It’s Coming Home!” has been used every time England does well in an international tournament for the past 20 years, and it refers to the history behind football and how the sport was created in England. The fact that England has chased success for so long yet never even won the Euros before made this final was almost written in the stars for many. An English victory in Wembley would certainly put an end to the “years of hurt,” as the song says.
The majority of the attention in the English-speaking world has centered around England and their quest for glory, but this match was historic for Italy as well. Despite being one of the most successful football nations in the world, winning the World Cup four times, Italy has often underachieved at the Euros, winning only once way back in 1968.
In fact, the last time Italy made it to the final in Euro 2012, they were mauled to death 4-0 by that magnificent Spanish side. The last few years had not been kind to Italy as well; poor management and a lack of talented players caused them to not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Since that disaster, new manager Roberto Mancini, along with a crop of new young players, saw this team quickly rise to the top again.
In a crowded Wembley stadium packed with over 67,000 fans, the Euro 2020 Final kicked off. Knowing that Italy have a very strong defense but their weakness is quick-attacking combinations, England came out the gate swinging. Their star striker, Harry Kane, picked up the ball deep before playing a crucial pass to Kieran Trippier, who picked out a superb cross over the top. Kane and Raheem Sterling drew all the defenders toward them, and then, out of nowhere, opposite fullback Luke Shaw made a late run into the box before volleying home the ball at the near post, sending England up 1-0 in just the second minute.
Italy is a team who likes to play the game on their own accord, but when they aren’t in control, they are at their weakest. Once England took the lead, the Italians looked very disorganized, especially as the majority-English crowd cheered on their home team. With some dogged defending, England was able to break up all the attacking plays Italy tried to build; besides a few direct runs from Federico Chiesa, they created nothing.
When Italy came out the tunnel in the second half, Roberto Mancini tweaked the system and made some substitutions shortly after, bringing more attacking ambition to his team. On the flip side, Gareth Southgate, the manager of England, set his team up with the intent of defending their lead and seeing out the rest of the game. While England’s defense has been impenetrable this tournament, only conceding one goal prior to this game, Southgate’s cautious approach has drawn criticism due to the vast attacking talent England have, which many feel are under-utilized.
As the half progressed, Italy began to dominate possession and push England back into their own territory. England still looked threatening on the counter, but Italy were really starting to grow into the game. Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne forced England’s goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, into several saves.
Then, about an hour into the match, Domenico Berardi sent in a looping cross off a corner and Bryan Cristante was able to flick the ball towards Giorgio Chiellini in front of goal. Chiellini slipped as the ball bounced past him, but Marco Verratti lunged forward, heading the ball to goal. With a quick reflex, Pickford was able to palm the ball away and onto the post. But rushing into the danger area was Italy’s heroic centerback Leonardo Bonucci, who swept the rebound into the back of the net, equaling the score 1-1. It wasn’t the prettiest goal you’ll ever see, but it was a goal nonetheless, and one that had been a long time coming.
As the game went on, Italy pushed for a late winner that never came, and with the scores equal, the match was sent to extra time. Throughout the 30-minute period, however, both teams were so fatigued after playing so many games this tournament that several mistakes led to potential goals from Italy and England. After an English corner, Kalvin Phillips had a beautiful off-the-chest volley from outside the box which sailed just wide. For Italy, Federico Bernardeschi sent a driven freekick through the wall and on target, but Jordan Pickford was able to calmly save it. With neither team able to break the deadlock, the champion of Euro 2020 was to be decided by penalty shootout.
Of each team’s first five penalty takers, Berardi, Bonucci and Bernardeschi all scored theirs, while Andrea Belotti had his shot saved by Jordan Pickford. As for England, Harry Kane and Harry Maguire scored, but Marcus Rashford hit the post and Jadon Sancho’s shot was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma in Italy’s goal.
With a score of 3-2, Italy’s last penalty taker Jorginho, who is a wonderful penalty taker and even scored the winner against Spain in the last match, was tasked with repeating that feat this time around. However, as Jorginho stepped up to strike the ball, Pickford correctly guessed where he would shoot and dove to his right, tipping the shot off the post and out. England were still alive, yet their entire tournament rested on the shoulders of the youthful Bukayo Saka, who was England’s final penalty taker. If Saka missed, Italy would be champions. The pressure seemed to be too heavy for the young man, whose penalty was powerfully beaten away by Donnarumma in goal, confirming Italy as the King of Europe. As the Italian team was sent into delirium, Leonardo Bonucci summed it up perfectly when he grabbed the camera and screamed, not it’s coming home but “It’s coming to Rome!”
For England, another tournament ends in heartbreak, but it is relatively bittersweet as England played great and had their best run ever at the Euros. It is not the end of the world either, as they possess a very talented team that will have opportunities to win further trophies down the road.
It must be said that this match in particular will definitely leave a sour taste given the manner in which they lost: a penalty shootout. Throughout English football history, England lost every single penalty shootout they had until it seemed the curse was lifted, when they prevailed against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup. But now, it looks like the curse has returned, and against Italy of all opponents — the same team who beat England on penalties at Euro 2012 when Andrea Pirlo humiliated Joe Hart with a Panenka penalty.
As for Italy, they have officially reclaimed their spot as one of the football’s elite and completely repaired their reputation after their 2018 World Cup failure. And with this talented group of players and even stronger team mentality, who knows what the future could hold?
Copa America 2021 Final
The centerpiece match of this year’s Copa America, the oldest national competition in football history, was between two teams who have faced each other on numerous occasions: Brazil and Argentina. The two intense rivals share a mutual hatred dating back to the introduction of the sport to South America, with both nations competing for the mantle of the best team in the Americas and often the world. Here as well, it is quite fitting these two teams meet in the final.
From where we left on in the quarterfinals, Brazil narrowly eliminated Chile in a match where Brazil was tried and tested by an experienced but old Chilean team. Brazil then met Peru in the semifinals, the same team they beat 4-0 in the group stage, although Peru would play much better this time around. While Brazil looked incredibly dominant in the first half, they eased back after halftime and looked very fatigued, almost allowing Peru to equalize. Brazil did just enough to hold off their opponents and make it to the final.
Argentina faced Ecuador in the quarterfinals, beating them 3-0. While Ecuador weren’t actually all that bad, a masterclass performance from Lionel Messi put them to the sword. Colombia proved to be a much tougher adversary in the semifinals as they took the Argentines to penalties after a 1-1 draw, but heroics from Emi Martinez set up a meeting with Brazil in the final.
Between the two, it was hard to look past Brazil as overwhelming favorites. They had waltzed through this tournament, beating teams with little effort at times. Not only that, but they also had the best squad in the tournament with a world-class player in every position. Neymar Jr. has been great in attack while Marquinhos and Thiago Silva have been unbreakable in defense. Brazil are also the reigning champions and the host nation. In fact, every single time Brazil have hosted the Copa America, they have won. The last time they even lost a match as hosts was in 1949.
Argentina, on the other hand, have not won a single trophy since the 1993 Copa America. And not for a lack of trying, as they reached the final of the 1995 Confederations Cup, 2004 and 2007 Copa America, 2014 World Cup, 2015 and 2016 Copa America — losing every single one. That being said, what better place to break your losing streak than in your biggest opponent’s backyard? And throughout this tournament, Argentina grew into it, looking better with each game they played under their surprisingly talented manager Lionel Scaloni.
The match kicked off on an extremely humid night at the famous Estadio do Maracana in Rio. Argentina knew that the first 20 minutes and last 20 minutes of the match were crucial, as that is when Brazil are most dangerous. If they could hold off Brazil at those moments, their chances would be good, and that is exactly what they did.
With both teams going toe-to-toe, Argentina’s Rodrigo de Paul played a beautiful long-ball over the top. Renan Lodi was caught out of position and failed to clear the ball, leaving Angel Di Maria one-on-one with Ederson in goal. As the ball bounced up, Di Maria lifted the ball over Ederson’s head and into the back of the net with a cheeky chip, giving Argentina a 1-0 lead only 22 minutes into the final.
Brazil were shellshocked, they didn’t know what hit them. But as they scrambled for an equalizer, Argentina played hard, hacking down all of Brazil’s attackers and pushing them off the ball every time it neared the goal. This violent and aggressive approach was the antithesis to Brazil’s lovely and free-flowing “Joga Bonito” style of football — and it was working. Even though Brazil had some shots from distance, Argentina were deadly on the counter, almost increasing their lead on several occasions.
Into the second half, Brazil’s manager Tite switched up the formation and subbed on more attacking talent, looking to take the game to Argentina. Brazil then began to tighten their opponents between the vice grip, and Argentina’s back four started to bend and buckle under the Brazilian pressure. Richarlison thought he had scored the equalizer as he poked home a loose ball, but it was ruled out for being offside.
Richarlison had yet another chance to score after he picked up the ball from Neymar and unleashed a powerful shot on target, but this time, Emi Martinez stood tall and batted it away. Sensing Brazil turning up the heat, Argentina themselves boosted the aggression. Every time Neymar got the ball, Nicolas Otamendi was there to meet him with an American football-style tackle. These tackles and others alike resulted in several on-pitch fights between the Argentinian and Brazilian players, which only wasted more time and worked in Argentina’s favor.
But in the 87th minute, Brazil carved out a great chance when Neymar sent in a cross off a freekick. Marcos Acuna was able to clear the ball only as far as Gabigol, the Brazilian striker who plays his club football for Flamengo in that very same stadium. As the ball bounced toward him, Gabigol struck it with a perfect half-volley, heading right under the roof of the net, but a fantastic fingertip save from Martinez tipped it over the bar.
Shortly after, Martinez himself started a counterattack which caught the Brazilian defense off-guard. Another great through-ball from de Paul found none other than Lionel Messi one-on-one against Ederson. If Messi scored, that would have been the perfect cherry on top, but unfortunately for him, he slipped in the grass while trying to cut to the left and Ederson was able to gobble up the ball. De Paul himself also scored off another counterattack but was thwarted by the Brazilian keeper again. Ultimately though, these misses went unpunished; the referee blew the whistle, ending the match and confirming the elusive Copa America trophy would be heading to Argentinian shores this summer.
After the final whistle, all the Argentine players rushed to Messi and lifted him in the air in celebration as the country rejoiced, ending 28 years of hurt. While this victory meant a lot to every Argentinian, the trophy was especially important to Lionel Messi. Messi had tasted bitter defeat in four international finals, three of those in consecutive years. Due to fan backlash, Messi even briefly retired from the Argentina National Team after their loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final. Messi has achieved literally every possible trophy in his club career with Barcelona but had yet to win a single trophy with Argentina. While some consider Messi to be the greatest of all time, this was the one thing that held him back, as Diego Maradona won the 1986 World Cup, Pele won three World Cups and even his generational rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, won Euro 2016 with Portugal.
But finally, those criticisms can be put to rest. Messi decisively brought glory to la Albiceleste. In this Copa America, Messi was incredibly motivated; he topped both charts with four goals and five assists. He even helped out in defense often. And now, with this trophy, I believe Lionel Messi is officially the greatest player of all time.
Ironically, Messi didn’t even have that great of a game in the final. For a player who carries Argentina so often, it was his supporting cast who finally showed up. Angel Di Maria’s lone goal proved to be the winner, but if you go back to the other finals Messi has played in, his teammates have squandered multiple chances — Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, even Di Maria himself. What separates this team from past iterations is this unbreakable team mentality and well-oiled system, with every single player pulling their weight.