“It’s different”: Messi magic has Canada learning quickly at Copa América

Messi Bombito - Copa America

ATLANTA – Fans bowing to Lionel Messi, chanting his name with fervorous passion; it’s commonplace with Inter Miami CF and worldwide.

But there’s a different energy when he dons Argentina colors. It’s an overflowing passion amid chaos that becomes uniquely calm when he takes possession.

On Thursday, as La Albiceleste defeated Canada 2-0 in their Copa América opener in Atlanta, 70,564 fans sent shockwaves through Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Portland Timbers goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau stood tall on two Messi breakaways and thwarted an early Ángel Di María chance, keeping both stars off the scoresheet, but the reigning Copa and World Cup champions prevailed.

“When you play Argentina, you know you’ll have some important actions, and you know Messi and Di María are there. They have some world-class players, but it’s about being big in certain moments,” said Crépeau, who made six saves in the defeat.

“I don’t get fazed by [Messi] during the game, but yes, it’s something insane. ... With this group, we know we have the quality to compete, we’ve come a long way, and now it's about getting the pieces together.”

Although Canada battled to 0-0 at halftime, Messi was critical in setting up second-half goals from Julián Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez.

Messi = inevitable

In many ways, the Inter Miami superstar is a guarantee. Crépeau and others, like Colorado Rapids defender Moise Bombito, who had a standout performance, don’t let themselves get distracted by it. Still, the eight-time Balon d’Or winner makes an impact.

Always. There’s no stopping it.

“This is what I say about Messi – I've coached against him several times, and I feel like we've had a good match plan every time, and we've executed a lot of good things, but he's so good,” Canada head coach Jesse Marsch said post-match. “He's that good. He still makes plays and the two balls he makes on the two goals are world-class.”

Amid Crépeau’s head-turning performance, supporters still swarmed any chance to catch a glimpse of the Argentine No. 10, a sporting love seldom seen anywhere else.

An ad on the video board, a camera shot of the bus, or even the most straightforward act of tying a shoe prompted swelling cheers. Nobody could be disappointed by Messi as he secured his record 18th Copa América assist.

“It’s different playing against him with Argentina and in a crowd like this one. It’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of and certainly one of the loudest,” said Nashville SC’s Jacob Shaffelburg, who had a brace against Messi’s Miami in March and played 31 minutes on Thursday. “Max’s saves give us a big boost; he made some crazy saves.”

Meanwhile, Portland’s Kamal Miller had a different perspective. Despite not playing, he had a quick post-match exchange with Messi, his former Miami teammate.

“Everyone comes out to watch him across MLS, but here, with 70,000 Argentina fans who love him and their country, it’s a different experience,” Miller said. “We’re lucky he didn’t finish those chances because those are usually in the back of the net... it was nice to catch up with him, though, and it’s an incredible opportunity to play against a team like that on this stage.”

Learning from the fire

At 36 years old and already having Copa América and World Cup titles, there was no shock for Messi. Yet for Canada, it was all new, thrown into their Copa América debut against the world’s best, following tune-up friendlies vs. France and the Netherlands.

Unlike many other nations at Copa América 2024, Canada’s burgeoning soccer culture is rooted in supporting family heritage. With Les Rouges on the outside looking in at the World Cup and many other prominent tournaments from 1986-2022, fans and players gravitated towards their family heritage.

It’s left a void of experience and, for some, any familiarity with the cultural magic encapsulated at Copa América.

“It’s amazing; you never know if that’s possible as a Canadian to play in a tournament like that and experience these types of things,” said Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio, who grew up supporting his family’s Colombian roots before playing for the CanMNT.

“It’s a good experience to get the feel of how these games are ... we’re holding our own, but we still have a lot to learn going into the next few games, and each time we’ll improve.”

With Group A matches against Peru (June 25) and Chile (June 29) looming, Canada approach the upcoming schedule knowing the intensity of the tournament and how they need to execute against difficult opposition.

“It's not getting much easier; Peru and Chile are extremely experienced groups that have played and done well in this tournament before,” said former CF Montréal and Nashville defender Alistair Johnston.

“But now that we’ve had three strong matches in this system against tough opponents, and we’ve shown we can play, it's just about being more clinical and stepping up the ruthlessness in both boxes.”