Lionel Messi vs Dani Alves: two former teammates chasing Copa America glory this summer

Much of the story of Lionel Messi and Daniel Alves’ careers has been a shared one. Any football fan, whichever team they support, will have memories of that wonderful South American partnership flying down the right-hand side of the Nou Camp pitch.

Messi jinked inside, Alves overlapped; the cutback and the goal. You knew it was coming and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Together, they won three Champions Leagues and six Spanish titles amongst a total of 23 trophies. In a team that over the years contained Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa and Neymar, no duo brought Barcelona more goals than the Brazilian full-back and Argentine magician.

And if everything goes to plan for them over the next few weeks as they captain their respective countries at the Copa América, they could provide a final chapter to their inextricably intertwined careers that is delightfully reminiscent of the first.

The final will be held in the Maracanã on June 7 and it could be a repeat of the very first international final that Messi and Alves played – Argentina vs. Brazil at the 2007 Copa América in Venezuela.

Argentina were huge favourites going into that match, and for good reason – the football had been sparkling. They had put four past Colombia and the United states in the Group stage, whacked another four past Peru in the quarters and beaten Mexico comfortably in the semis.

“A concerto of passes”, wrote a Mexican journalist after that game, “Lionel Messi alone is worth more than all eleven Mexicans.” The Albiceleste fans were so confident that they brought an enormous papier mache replica of the World Cup trophy to wave above their heads on the terraces.

But their joy would not last long. After three minutes Júlio Baptista turned inside Roberto Ayala and smashed the ball into the top corner. Half an hour later, Daniel Alves would see his cross turned into the net by the same Argentine centre-half.

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Messi and Juan Román Riquelme did their best to work their magic and bring Argentina back into the game, but they were powerless to stop their team’s third final loss to Brazil in four years. Twenty minutes from the end, Vágner Love broke free, played in Daniel Alves and, fittingly, he drove the final nail into Argentina’s coffin.

Little did Argentina’s 20-year-old, floppy haired superstar know it, but that would be just the start of his suffering in the light blue and white stripes. Three more major tournament finals have followed, and three more defeats – one in extra time to Germany at the 2014 World Cup and the other two on penalties, both to Chile at back-to-back Copa Américas.

For Alves, too, his Seleção experiences will not have lived up to the expectations he would have had after that 2007 triumph.

There have been two Confederations Cup wins, but, when it really mattered, he was left watching from the sidelines. The current PSG player was dropped in favour of Maicon during the 2014 World Cup and sat out the 2018 edition in Russia with injury.

Apart, the two have never tasted the success they managed together in Catalonia.

Now though, as the leaders of the two tournament favourites, they have another chance for international glory.

There is another Copa América next year, which, injury permitting, they will probably play in. But there is no certainty that Messi or Alves will make it to Qatar 2022. Both, then, will be desperate to make the most of this chance.

But whilst the mission is the same, they face different challenges as captains.

Alves is taking the armband for the home side, upon whom expectation weighs heavily.

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Even with Neymar out injured – perhaps a blessing in disguise given the distraction that the serious accusations levelled against him could have proved – Brazil are expected to go all the way on home soil. Any other result will be seen as unforgivable failure.

They have failed to convince during the friendly games since their World Cup exit at the hands of Belgium and coach Tite has come under scrutiny for not renewing the side as much as he might have following that defeat.

The Brazilian media has speculated at length that the 58-year-old could lose his job if Brazil do not lift the trophy in Rio.

As the one of the elder statesmen of a team that features a mix of youth and experience, then, Alves’ role is to make sure they do not lose emotional control in the same way they did during their home World Cup in 2014.

PSG’s veteran right-back is rightly portrayed as a bright and bubbly character, someone who inspires through the infectiousness of his personality.

Yet during the tournament, there may be times when his leadership style needs to take a more serious edge, providing a calm, guiding hand and not letting the dressing room become too high after a win or too low if a poor result increases the pressure.

For Messi, the task comes from another angle. Argentina’s dismal showing in Russia sparked a sea change in the squad, with interim manager Lionel Scaloni bringing in a raft of new faces and getting rid of older players like Lucas Biglia, Gonzalo Higuain, Éver Banega and Messi and Alves’ long-time Barcelona colleague Javier Mascherano.

In their place, he has brought less well-known names and some younger players to play alongside Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di Maria, the only survivors of those three consecutive final losses between 2014 and ’16.

Their friendly results since Russia have been a mixed bag, as you would expect for a team going through a process of renewal, so their captain’s serenity and big-game experience will be vital in Brazil.

Scaloni needs to mould a team around Messi and Agüero that is capable both of doing the hard work defensively and getting the ball to their forwards with sufficient quality to make it possible for them to create and score.

In their warm-up friendly against Nicaragua on Friday – in which Messi opened the scoring with a typically brilliant dribble and finish – Scaloni handed starts to relatively inexperienced internationals like Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes, Guido Rodriguez, Juan Foyth and Renzo Saravia.

As captain and leader, then, Messi will need to provide reassurance and encouragement, hoping that the team can gain confidence and momentum as the tournament builds to its crescendo in the Maracanã.

If they do meet in Rio, it would be a fitting end to the Alves and Messi story, one of those occasions when football provides a lovely circularity to the narrative. But you can guarantee they will not go easy on each other. After all, when they’re not playing for Barcelona, only one of them can win.

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