It is that time of year again when events on the football pitch suddenly become intertwined with the affairs of state. So, at least, it would seem for the under-fire president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. Despite suffering without a doubt the nadir of his bombastic, ever-controversial three-year term, with weekly protests against his reckless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and accusations of corruption in the purchase of vaccines, Bolsonaro saw it fit to give his own prediction on today's Copa América final between Brazil and Argentina to his opposite number, Alberto Fernández.
“I want to say especially to the President of Argentina that the only rivalry between us is going to happen on Saturday at the Maracanã,” he told Fernández during Thursday's Mercosur summit, eliciting a smile from the Argentinos Juniors fan. “And I am going to give you the result: 5-0. I raise my hand and say 5-0. But after that, my esteemed Fernández, know that we will always want the best for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.”
The scoreline in Bolsonaro's forecast may be rather skewed in his side's favour, but the result at least coincides with what most objective observers believe will occur tonight in Río de Janeiro. Argentina start as comfortable outsiders after squeezing past Colombia on penalties in a tense and often bad-tempered semi-final clash, a reflection more of the hosts' enviable power and depth across the field than any particular weaknesses in their rivals, who have gone from strength to strength in this marathon past month of World Cup qualifiers and Copa encounters.
For once it appears that the best two teams have advanced to the deciding match. And while it will no doubt be a difficult, nerve-wracking match for Lionel Scaloni's men, that does not mean that defeat is inevitable. On the contrary, Argentina have been growing in unity and confidence as the tournament has progressed, setting up what is certain to be a memorable encounter between the two powerhouses in no less a setting than the spiritual home of Brazilian football.
One man likely to be busier than most is Argentina's new football hero Emiliano Martínez, who wrote himself into the record books with three shoot-out saves to deny Colombia – and into our hearts with the hilarious heckling that accompanied those stops. “[Brazil] are a fantastic team,” TyC Sports heard from Martínez, whose baby daughter was born during this Copa while the squad and its support staff have been in isolation. “They have been favourites from day one. But we have the best in the world, a great coach and we are going out to win it.”
Having the best player in the world on your side, naturally, is another great advantage. Lionel Messi has shown exactly why he deserves that title this winter, putting in yet another towering display against Colombia and setting up Argentina's solitary goal before Luis Díaz pulled the Cafeteros back into the game. At 34 this may be his last Copa, and there is no lack of motivation in Brazil as he continues to be the Albiceleste standard-bearer both in his performances and in how the usually soft-spoken star rallies the troops around him.
Whether that will be enough to upset the odds and deliver a famous victory will only become apparent shortly before midnight. Argentina have not won the Copa since 1993, and must look back to 2005 for the last victory over Brazil in a competitive match. But with Martínez at one end and Messi at the other they will have a chance – and if Scaloni has his wits about him Bolsonaro's rash prediction will be pinned to the Maracanã dressing room wall to add a little more fire in his charges' bellies.