Lionel Messi is back on the score sheet, just in time for Argentina’s Copa América title defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — The inevitable happened. Lionel Messi finally scored at this Copa América.

It wasn’t anything fancy — in the 51st minute, Enzo Fernández found himself alone at the top of the box after a failed clearance by Canada. The Chelsea midfielder controlled the ball with his left foot and struck it with his right, and while the shot may have been going in anyway, Messi got a piece of it as the ball slipped past a diving Maxime Crepeau.

Messi’s goal sealed Argentina’s 2-0 win over Canada in Tuesday night’s semifinal at MetLife Stadium, clinching a spot in Sunday’s final in his current hometown of Miami (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). La Albiceleste will face the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Uruguay and Colombia (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

The Euro 2024 final is also on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), and Spain will be there, due in part to 16-year-old Lamine Yamal making history by becoming the youngest player to score a goal in the history of the tournament in a 2-1 victory over France. After the match, he tweeted a photo of him and Messi from 2007 that recently went viral. 

Messi scored his first career goal at Copa América on July 9, 2007; Yamal was born four days later.

Messi’s goal against Canada marked his 14th in 38 career Copa América appearances. In tournaments that he has scored in, though, this is the longest it has taken him to nab that first goal. For recent comparison’s sake, Messi scored seven at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, including twice in the final.

It’s no secret that the 37-year-old superstar hasn’t been 100% healthy. He struggled with a hamstring injury earlier in the year that forced him to miss multiple matches for Inter Miami. And during Copa América, he’s been hampered by a right groin/adductor injury that kept him on the bench for Argentina’s third group stage match — a 2-0 win over Peru.

He played the full 90 minutes of Argentina’s quarterfinal against Ecuador, but was impressively contained for the most part and had limited touches. That match turned into a penalty shootout and Messi, taking the first kick, uncharacteristically missed from the spot after an attempted Panenka hit the crossbar.

There were other lost opportunities before that, like in the opening match against Canada and in the second one vs. Chile. Against La Roja, he attempted an olimpico — or scoring directly from a corner kick, which is something he’d never done — but it didn’t work out.

Of course, he’s contributed to goals and created chances for his teammates. And even when Messi isn’t manufacturing all the magic, Argentina has proven it can win — against Canada, Julian Alvarez’s smooth goal in the 22nd minute might have been enough. 

“We have Leo, but we know that the entire team is there and if they are not performing well all together, we’re going to suffer,” coach Lionel Scaloni said via an interpreter. “And we do everything as a team. There’s a great level of togetherness and unity. They’re very strong together.”

And that’s an important exercise for this squad, because one day, it will have to learn how to compete without Messi on a permanent basis. 

Though Scaloni will tell you that there’s no rush on his end.

“We have to let him be and we will never be the ones to close the door [on his national team career],” Scaloni said. “He can be with our team for as long as he wants to be. And if he wants to retire, but still come and hang around, that would be great.”

Argentina vs. Canada Highlights | 2024 Copa América | Semifinals

Argentina vs. Canada Highlights | 2024 Copa América | Semifinals

Messi’s supporters would love that. The sellout crowd — many of whom were wearing his No. 10 jersey — were grateful to witness his 109th international goal. They were there early, setting up tailgates on the stadium grounds more than four hours before kickoff. When the jumbotron showed Messi getting off the team bus upon arrival, those who were already inside MetLife gave him a standing ovation. When Messi took a corner kick in the 35th minute, fans in the northeast corner contorted their bodies in order to get the best angle while holding up their smartphones to snap a once-in-a-lifetime photo of their favorite player. When he missed a quality shot in the 44th minute, the more than 80,000 fans in attendance collectively sighed.

Now, Argentina has the chance to become the first team since Spain (which won the 2008 Euros, 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros) to win three straight major championships (2021 Copa América, 2022 World Cup, and now, maybe, the 2024 Copa América).

Scaloni said he’s not interested in those kinds of statistics because “the most important thing is to win.” And while it’s been clear this summer that Messi doesn’t always have to score for Argentina to do that, everyone prefers it when he does.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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