Backed by boisterous home support, Chile ended a 99-year wait for a first Copa America title, beating Argentina 4-1 in a penalty shootout following a scoreless tie in soccer’s oldest national team competition.
Alexis Sanchez chipped in the winning penalty. The goal led to an explosion of emotion at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. Victory for Chile means record four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi, who’s won every honor at club level, remains without a senior title in Argentina’s colors.
The final brought together the 12-nation tournament’s two dominant teams, with Messi leading Argentina’s search for its first championship since 1993 and Chile’s best generation of talent being propelled forward by the exuberant support of fans across the Andean nation of 17 million.
As Chilean players chased a shirtless Sanchez in celebration, Argentina players slumped to their haunches. The team had been hoping to bounce back from last year’s World Cup final loss with its first Copa America crown since 1993.
“Winning the Copa America in Chile with everyone celebrating is the only thing in my head,” Chile’s Argentine-born coach Jorge Sampaoli said after the game. “It was very valuable against one of the strongest teams in the world.”
The competition threatened to be overshadowed by corruption charges in the U.S. against global soccer officials, including several senior South American executives accused of taking bribes of more than $100 million for Copa America rights. The fallout led South American soccer head Juan Angel Napout to stay away from the region’s top competition until the morning of the final. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is stepping down because of the soccer scandal, skipped the event along with other executives.
“I just want to say Chile has been a fantastic host and they have held a great Copa America,” Napout said in an interview before the game.
The host’s path to the final had not been as smooth as its four wins in five tournament games might have suggested. The team was the center of two of the event’s biggest controversies, starting with key midfielder Arturo Vidal’s arrest for drunk driving in the group stages. He managed to avoid being thrown out of the competition, a punishment teammate Gonzalo Jara was unable to escape.
The defender was caught on camera provoking Edinson Cavani into lashing out by inserting a finger between the striker’s buttocks in Chile’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay.
Boosted by the support of an overwhelmingly one-sided crowd, supplied with more than 40,000 flags by a local businessman, Chile battled to prevail over the pre-tournament favorite, which had crushed Paraguay 6-1 in the semifinal and won the last four tournaments held on Chilean soil.
Messi, the 5-foot-5 (1.69-meter) forward nicknamed “La Pulga” -- “the flea” -- was the centerpiece of a star studded squad valued at $556 million by the tournament’s organizer.
While he was the star performer in the match against Paraguay, Messi was shackled throughout the final by a Chilean team that was the more dominant for large parts of a game of few chances.
“The idea was to neutralize players like Messi and not let our opponents dominate the actions,” Sampaoli said. “This result will not change what is Messi to the world.”
Both goalkeepers made diving saves before halftime, with Chile’s Claudio Bravo keeping out Sergio Aguero’s header and Sergio Romero blocking a volley from Vidal earlier.
Sanchez drew gasps from the crowd when his 83rd minute shot just fizzed past Romero’s post, the striker reacted by chewing his shirt in frustration. Still, with just seconds of normal time remaining Argentina almost sneaked a victory through substitute Gonzalo Higuain, who hit the ball into the side of the Chilean goal from close-range.
A slip by Javier Mascherano allowed Sanchez to run through on goal late in the match. Under pressure from a defender his shot flew just above Romero’s goal. With time running down, Chile continued to press.
While the players waited to start the penalties, Chile fans launched into a rousing version of the country’s national anthem. They then emitted ear-splitting whistles as each Argentine player stepped up to take a penalty. It had the desired effect. After Ever Banega missed Argentina’s second, Sanchez stepped up and coolly flicked in the winner. He then sprinted away with waving shirt over his head, as fans celebrated Chile’s triumph by lighting red flares across the stadium.