The contrast could not have been more stark. The Maracana will look like a sparsely populated bastion on Sunday morning (IST), suffering from a lack of brightness that cannot be adjusted even on the latest model of your television set. In the evening though, or post-midnight, the same television set will be glowing with bright colors, costumes, and cacophony from the cavernous Wembley where 60,000 will gather to witness England’s chase for a continental title after 55 years.
A notice on Friday has announced that a crowd of up to 7,800 people, ten percent of the stadium’s full capacity of 78,000, will be allowed to watch the Copa America final.
Like England and Italy will fight for the Euro title in London, Neymar’s Brazil and Messi’s Argentina will also seek a piece of silverware – Euro’s poor cousin Copa – in Rio de Janeiro, in front of 70,000 unoccupied seats.
Hurriedly-organised in Brazil after Argentina (because of a rise in Covid cases) and Colombia (political unrest) pulled out at the last moment, the 105-year old premier event of South America is not a spectacle that it used to be – even in 2019 when Brazil claimed their ninth crown, without Neymar. The highest-paid player in the world was nursing an injury.
Still, Brazil, of Everton and Gabriel Jesus, gave the packed houses at Belo Horizonte and at the Maracana a lot to cheer about with their rousing display. With Lionel Messi carrying the Argentinian challenge, the 2-0 semifinal victory ensured by Jesus and Roberto Firmino at the Estadio Mineiro held a special meaning to every Brazilian.
Their pride was trampled on the same turf by the marauding Germans in another semifinal. It was during the World Cup that the Brazilians hosted in 2014. Nothing could take away the hurt but the victory over Argentina acted as a soothing balm. Victory in the final against Peru at the Maracana gave Tite, the astute Brazil coach, his first serious success since taking charge of the Selecao in 2016. If he can do an encore, Tite will become the first Brazilian manager to win back-to-back Copas.
Another Superclassico looms, and this time Neymar has thrown an open invitation to his “friends” in the blue and white stripes. Even though the players criticized the emergency shift of the tournament to Brazil, which is struggling to cope with the pandemic, the mood switched gears as Copa America 2021 picked up the pace.
“You don’t play a final, you win a final,” said Casemiro, who has spent the last five years playing regularly in the Real Madrid midfield, trying to keep Messi under the cosh. Unannounced like Everton in the last edition, but already drawing a bucketful of praise after his two goals, is Lyon’s Lucas Paqueta. Tite calls him “the only other player in the squad who understands football in the way that Neymar and Coutinho do”. However, Jesus, the hero of the last edition, will miss the final after getting the red card during the quarterfinal against Chile.
Lionel Scaloni, the Argentina coach, has no such adjustments to make for Albiceleste. His namesake, the captain, is on a dream run for the Holy Grail. The quest, on this occasion, looks very much real and palpable. Messi’s free-kicks are finding the top corners with a startling regularity, his assists are being carefully fired into the net and the woeful-looking Argentina that visited Brazil in 2018 seems a distant memory. Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez has linked well with his out-of-club contract captain to anticipate the passes. Leandro Paredes, a regular at PSG with Neymar, too has learnt the ropes.
Messi’s desperate need for a trophy was discernible in his reaction when Colombia’s Yerry Mina missed from the spot during the semifinal shootout. The Colombia defender, once-upon-a-time Messi’s teammate at Barcelona, had a dance routine before taking a penalty against Uruguay in the previous round. The moment Mina missed, Messi taunted, “How about dancing now?” as the Colombian walked back to the halfway line. An un-Messi like behaviour but one can cut the man some slack.
Waiting to end a 28-year old drought, Messi, all of 34 and approaching twilight, has been in irresistible form while leading Argentina to the final, his fourth. He is the tournament’s top goal scorer with four and has added five assists after setting up Lautaro Martinez’s semifinal opener. The final also serves up an opportunity for Neymar who is yet to win the trophy.
Whether Tite’s Brazil play the proverbial good hosts at the Maracana to an excited and energised Messi is still to be seen, but for the Cariocas it will be a restricted celebration in Rio on Saturday evening (Sunday morning in India).