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Lionel Messi just can't win for Argentina, and Gonzalo Higuain keeps letting him down

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Surely Gonzalo Higuain is cursed.

Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

At this stage, he has to be cursed. The fates are cruel; whether you put it down to luck, chance, kismet, karma or destiny, it seems that Gonzalo Higuain has ultimately become the butt of their divine jokes. Knowing that the highest aspiration of most footballers as young day-dreamers is to not only represent their country, but to be thrust into the big stage, the grand moment, to score the decisive last minute goal -- make a vital clearance for defenders? -- that lifts the national team to glory and elevates the player to divine status, the universe seems tickled by the prospect of gifting Higuain these chances and delighting in his failure.

What Chile did in the final of the Copa America was as unsurprising as it was brutal. These were the same tactics that most of the teams in the tournament had employed -- borderline illegal physical play mixed with moments of genius and teamwork. Beat your opponent into submission. Make them weary of playing to their full strength. They have the players for this: Gary Medel and Eduardo Vargas should be waking up in the middle of the night in fits of madness to sleepwalk to sinks in their homes in order to wash off the blood on their hands.

The Chileans, however, unlike their other colleagues who resorted to those same tactics, are extremely talented to add to their roughness. Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal are equal parts ballerinas as they are Terminators. Chile was skilled enough to not only out-play Argentina in midfield, but to become favorites during the course of the match. It was overwhelming to the point that Argentina were resorting to desperate counter-attacks. Chile not only nullified what was supposedly the best team in the tournament, but played them off the park.

At that point, against that type of opponent, Argentina has to take on reptilian qualities. In that, rather than trying to go head to head with an opponent that is not only physically dominating, but skillfully as well, it's better to bide your time for an opening then deliver a fatal strike.

And that's how it played out. Unfortunately, that chance landed to the wrong man. Coming on for Sergio Aguero in the 71st minute, Higuain was put in pole position to rewrite his story. The Copa America is not the World Cup, but in the lead up to the tournament and the final, many Argentinians noted that it would make up for the heartbreak a summer before. It was to go a long way in healing what was still an open wound.

But as determined before, this is all just a cruel joke. Angel Di Maria, finally fit enough to start the final this time, pulled up with an injury as he raced past three defenders in a long-bursting effort to pierce through the Chilean defense. Javier Pastore, who also missed last summer's tournament, put on his own disappearance act in memory of his admittedly unfair exclusion. And Aguero would not have come off with 20 minutes left in the game had he resembled the world class Argentine striker that he is at Manchester City.

And to show how things can change in just one year, Ezequiel Lavezzi's substitution for the unable Di Maria signaled the end of things for Argentina. In the World Cup final, his removal from the game had the same effect. Where he was once one of Argentina's best attackers against Germany, he was the proverbial white flag here.

So, it once again fell to the feet of the Napoli man. What could have been going through Higuain's mind as Lavezzi decided not to shoot, and instead teased the ball to the far post with Claudio Bravo effectively beaten? In the 92nd minute, with the last kick of the game, could he have possibly been so burdened by the thoughts of his decisive miss against Germany that he cowered in the moment again? Or could that have just been one of the straws on his back, along with his disappointing penalty miss for Napoli against Lazio this past season, which damned his club team to the Europa League rather than a Champions League berth? Or even his open-goal miss against Lyon in the 2009-10 Champions League?

As an athlete, confidence is critical along with a short memory. Belief in self and the forgetting of past failures is paramount to being able to perform at your best. But these things would play on the mind of any sane individual. So one can only assume that he felt a chance for vindication and relief in that last minute, and consequently, an emotional distress so deep after the miss that it was a forgone conclusion that he would also miss his penalty in the shootout.

And in the midst of all of this was another tragic hero. The one man on the field who could not bear to watch Higuain's penalty: Lionel Messi, who is suffering a similar fate to Tantalus. It's not enough that he must not win a trophy for Argentina but tragedies like this revel in dangling the goal just out of reach of the protagonist. So he plays to the best of his abilities to reach the finals, only to powerlessly watch it slip through his fingers.

It must also be said that he hasn't dominated any of those games either. But that criticism is much more about the opponents daring the rest of Argentina to beat them than Messi not stepping up to the moment. Chile had spent days before the match coming up with strategies to stop him -- even resorting to looking for clues in the FIFA video game. And Germany had gone through similar measures.

So he under-performed in the sense that Medel had karate-kicked him in the stomach. That he was routinely scythed down and caught between two or three defenders as soon as he touched the ball. That with all of this, he still created chances for everyone else even as his person was under siege.

And with his hopes and the hopes of a country on the ropes, he scored his penalty only for Higuain and Ever Banega to miss theirs. He sat in the middle of the pitch inconsolable once again, though some empathizing children tried their best to lift his spirits.

The only man worse off than him was the man who had declared that he wanted to mean as much to his country and his club as Diego Maradona did when he signed for Napoli. But while El Diego is a god to the people of Naples and Argentina, Gonzalo Higuain has, against his best efforts, unfortunately become their devil.