The sight of an inconsolable Lionel Messi slumped on the turf of the MetLife Stadium became the defining image of his troubled tenure in the hallowed Argentina shirt from 2014 to 2016.
To join a 2007 fall at the last hurdle in Venezuela, where bitter rivals Brazil were instead crowned continental champions, the Barcelona icon dragged his nation to the final of every tournament they contested during that period.
While the extra time defeat by Germany in the 2014 World Cup final understandably brought Messi to tears, it was the second of two successive Copa America losses to Chile in 2016, on penalties, which hit hardest.
Lionel Messi has lost three Copa America finals in his career wit the Argentina national team
He is now lining up a fourth shot knowing an international honour would crown his reputation
Messi was left in tears by Argentina’s World Cup final defeat by Germany in 2014
Blasting his side’s first attempt over the bar, then-Barcelona teammate and Man of the Match Claudio Bravo’s late denial of Lucas Biglia paved the way for Francisco Silva to seal a 4-2 win as the Chileans became unlikely back-to-back South American kings.
Stumbling into the boot room at 2am, fitness coach Elvio Paolorosso found Messi ‘absolutely alone’ and ‘crying like a little boy who’s lost his mother’. Shortly after, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner announced his exit from international football.
‘I tried so hard to be champion with Argentina,’ began the No 10. ‘But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it,’ he sobbed.
As a nation fell into mourning, ‘No te vayas Lio’ (Don’t go, Lio) became a trending phrase on social media but with time and distance from the whole affair, his return to the national team’s set-up was completed a month and a half later.
Messi’s first Copa America final defeat came in 2007 – a 3-0 loss against rivals Brazil
His next shot at glory was in 2015 but Argentina and Messi fell short and lost to hosts Chile
Now, there is a chance to exorcise the demons from that first instalment of Argentina’s painful trilogy of losses, and possibly its subsequent two chapters, at the very venue it occurred – the iconic Maracana in Rio – on July 7.
Even without Neymar, Brazil’s home advantage and strength in depth Brazil means they are favourites to come out victors.
They have won the Copa America on all four occasions they have hosted it but may succumb to the pressure of being the home nation like in 2014, when a 7-1 humbling by Germany in the semi-final prevented an epic Brazil-Argentina showdown in the final game. But it remains a possibility this time round.
On the other hand, Argentina, the record 14-time winners of the crown who haven’t lifted it since 1993, lost to Venezuela and were unimpressive against Morocco recently before beating Nicaragua 5-1 last Friday.
Boasting a weaker squad in comparison, they can still prove an outside threat with stars such as ageing ‘Golden Generation’ trio Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria however, plus budding talents including Serie A duo Lautaro Martinez and Dybala.
Argentina lost their second straight Copa America final in 2016, again to Chile
Under sacked Jorge Sampaoli’s former staff member Lionel Scaloni – brought in as caretaker but then appointed national team boss permanently – reduced expectations could work in Argentina’s favour while Brazil deals with the heat from its demanding press and public.
Thrust in Group B containing Colombia, Paraguay and Qatar, not emerging from the land of their eternal foes as winners would not be the end of days for Argentina given that they, and most probably Messi depending on how heavy any exit would be, can enjoy another roll of the dice when they co-host the competition with the Colombians in 2020.
Back-to-back Copa Americas will occur as organisers Conmebol attempt to sync its flagship tournament with its UEFA counterpart. They will simultaneously aim to show they are capable of hosting a major tournament before a joint-bid to host the World Cup in its centenary year with Uruguay, where the tournament was first played in 1930.
But for Messi, while immortality would unquestionably be achieved by success on home soil next year, Copa America glory now would arguably be that bit sweeter as it would soften the blow of Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final pummelling against Liverpool at Anfield.
There is obviously his legacy in Argentina too where, as die-hard River Plate fan and chess instructor Pablo Alejandro Costa tells Sportsmail, opinion is divided across generations on a player booed by visiting Boca Juniors fans at the Nou Camp in the pre-season Joan Gamper Trophy last August.
Messi needs an international honour to ever truly rank alongside Diego Maradona in Argentina
Messi is looking to lead the Argentina national side to their first Copa America since 1993
‘What really damage’s Messi’s reputation is the figure of Maradona,’ Costa said. ‘Maradona never quit the national team, and was only absent through his doping cases and other controversies or injuries while being a great leader as captain.
‘There’s this contrast of them being the best of their eras yet one played better for his club than country.
‘For kids and teenagers, as well as those under 35 one could say, Messi is the symbol of the national team and good football but those who saw Maradona in his time are unable to enjoy him.’
Jeronimo Villarroya, a music producer, believes that ‘without a doubt, winning the Copa is essential for Messi to first of all firmly prove himself as one of the most important players in the history of the national team.’
After Barcelona’s Champions League loss to Liverpool, Copa America glory would help Messi
According to Villaroya, however, it will probably do little to unite the nation as some, if not keener on Maradona as Costa explained, ‘don’t appreciate that he has never played for an Argentinian club’ while it is also ‘difficult to change their minds.’
There’s only one way to find out.
On Saturday night against Colombia in Salvador, Messi will embark down the road of redemption once more to finally gain universal approval across a fanatic football-loving populace back home that is without a major trophy for 26 years.