Ageless Lionel Messi remains central to Argentina’s global ambitions

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Argentina;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Argentina</a>'s <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Lionel Messi</a> was involved in both goals on Thursday night, setting up the second for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Lautaro Martinez;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Lautaro Martinez</a> in the 88th minute and extending his tournament assists record to 18.</span><span>Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images</span>

Was this the beginning of the end? The bald facts on his birth certificate suggest so. Lionel Messi turns 37 on Monday. There can’t be another tournament in him after this one, can there?

Messi invited retirement talk on the eve of the Copa América when he told ESPN Argentina that Inter Miami are his “last club” and “there’s not a lot of time left”.

Related: Lionel Messi pulls strings as Argentina tame Canada in Copa América opener

But the 24 months until the next World Cup don’t seem so long to wait, not when you consider other equally pertinent truths. Such as Messi playing the whole game, recovering from a crunching tackle and remaining influential until the end as Argentina beat Canada 2-0 in Atlanta in Thursday’s Copa América curtain-raiser.

He was involved in both goals, setting up the second for Lautaro Martinez in the 88th minute and extending his tournament assists record to 18 on the night that he claimed sole possession of the all-time Copa appearance mark. That’s 35 games over seven editions of the South American competition for the man with 183 caps and 108 goals.

Messi has 12 goals and 13 assists in a dozen games for Inter Miami this season. Admittedly, stepping on to an MLS field has much the same rejuvenating effect on the life force of grizzled ex-Euro-league elites as bathing in the alien-infested swimming pool did for the wrinklies in the Ron Howard film, Cocoon. It’s a much more supportive work environment than his previous haunt in Paris.

But Messi remains central, even essential, to the reigning Copa and World Cup champions, who have conceded only four goals while winning all but one of 15 fixtures since beating France in the final of Qatar 2022. The sole loss came last November to Uruguay, who, along with Lionel Scaloni’s side, Brazil and Colombia, are the tournament favorites.

Messi originally quit the national team aged 29 in a fug of frustration as Argentina lost the 2016 Copa on penalties to Chile, insisting “there will be no going back” and lamenting that “it hurts not to be a champion.” He soon went back. But perhaps he could have got away with retiring for real in the immediate afterglow of Qatar, when the Mission Accomplished mood was strong.

Now, though, the predominant vibe is business as usual, birthdays be damned. And with the World Cup and Copa trophies finally in the cabinet the pressure off the Argentina captain’s shoulders might be leavening the weight on those aging legs. He even cracked a whatcha-gonna-do smile after missing an excellent chance, a 65th-minute one-on-one that saw his shot saved by Canadian goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau and the follow-up deflected by Derek Cornelius.

It was one of several squandered opportunities that Messi and friends would normally have scored. This, though, was not a normal opening to the venerable tournament that is visiting the United States for the second time, with six guest nations from Concacaf invited to the 10-country Conmebol shindig.

Scaloni may have already produced what will prove the most extraordinary performance of the Copa when he asserted pre-match with a straight face: “There are no easier games than others. A lot of things can happen. The difficulty of France, Brazil or Canada can be the same.”

In fairness, Canada did share a goalless draw with France in a friendly on 9 June that was Jesse Marsch’s second game in charge following a 4-0 loss to the Netherlands three days earlier. The American, spurned by US Soccer when they rehired Gregg Berhalter for the USMNT, is less than six weeks into a role he accepted after Canada wooed him. “I’ve never felt more wanted, more desired and more appreciated,” Marsch said, sounding less like a coach who’d had a job interview and more like someone who’d just enjoyed a successful date on The Bachelor.

Related: Copa América 2024: Argentina 2-0 Canada – as it happened

With so little time for Marsch to impart his high-pressing tactical vision, and with such a dynamic but unbalanced line-up – two exceptional talents in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David alongside teammates of lesser repute – there was a thrilling nuttiness to Canada. A zaniness that seemed to discomfort Argentina, even as the champions’ sneaky slow-slow-quick movement and alert passing sliced the underdogs asunder with little difficulty.

So open, but so exciting, it was impossible to say whether Canada were playing three-dimensional chess or tic-tac-toe. What formation were Canada playing? What was the overarching gameplan? Who could tell. Maybe it was a sporting cousin of the disruptive mischief advocated by the political strategist Steve Bannon: flood the zone. Sow chaos to destabilize your enemy. Bend reality till it breaks.

Or was it the football equivalent of solving the world’s problems on a couch in the student hall of residence at 3am, 16 empty cans of Keystone at your feet. When the buzz finds the sweet spot the fuzziness feels like perfect clarity. The answers just flow.

Nominally in goal, Crépeau behaved as if he had discovered a canister of radioactive waste on his goal line and determined the best course of action was to move as far away as possible from his six-yard box.

Yet the longer the score remained even, and the closer Canada came to taking a shock lead, the more wary Argentina grew of their opponents and the more hesitant their performance became. Are they crazy to play like this … Or do they know something we don’t? Where did Canada’s center backs go? Is playing with no recognizable defensive line some weird Concacaf thing?

Somehow, it worked. Until it didn’t, and after an onrushing Crépeau clattered Alexis Mac Allister the loose ball was gleefully converted by Julian Alvarez for the 49th-minute opener. Still, on an evening when both teams frittered away excellent chances and Crépeau supplied a gale-force genius storm, Canada might have taken a point that would have formed a valuable foundation as they look to progress from a group that also contains Peru and Chile.

“It was complicated,” Messi conceded to reporters afterwards. “Most of our rivals play differently against us.” Against the top nations Argentina will need to be more efficient in front of goal and more organized in defense.

The US, encumbered by a Berhalter dilemma – past results are not bad enough to justify firing him, but the outlook does not look bright enough to keep him – will hope that the tournament proves clarifying as they begin against Bolivia on Sunday. Mexico meet Jamaica on Saturday while Brazil begin against Costa Rica on Monday.

It should be a fun few weeks. Provided, that is, the standard of the temporary natural grass in NFL stadiums – one of the most contentious challenges facing the 2026 organizers – does not dominate the conversation.

Argentina criticized Atlanta’s springy newly installed surface. “It’s not an excuse, but this wasn’t a good field. Sincerely, the field is not apt for these players,” Scaloni said. Goalkeeper Emi Martinez called it a “disaster”. No wonder, perhaps, that Argentina were late to return to the pitch for the second half.

“When they were waiting, I knew that they were looking at video and they were analyzing how they wanted to play against us. Now, I wish again, the referees would manage that. If we were five minutes late, we’d get a fine. There’d be a big problem,” Marsch told reporters. “Let’s see what happens with Argentina. I think they have to be fined.” World Cup winners deploying mind games against Canada? Marsch is entitled to be indignant. He should definitely be flattered.