Well, that was unexpected! Just a couple of days after turning the ripe old age of 29, Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football following Argentina’s Copa America Final defeat to Chile, Messi having blasted his penalty into orbit in the shootout.
Post-match, he sounded hurt and surprisingly definitive:
“In the dressing room I thought that this is the end for me with the national team, it’s not for me. That’s the way I feel right now, it’s a huge sadness once again and I missed the penalty that was so important.
“I tried so hard to be a champion with Argentina. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The choice for me is over, it is a decision. I tried many times to be a champion but did not.”
And boy did he try. Messi has helped Argentina to four finals during his time, only to see his team lose on each occasion. Sunday’s defeat added to the 2007 and 2015 Copa America Final heartbreaks and the 2014 World Cup Final, where Messi sullenly collected the player of the tournament award from the same stage where Germany lifted the trophy he really wanted.
My initial reaction to the news that Messi had retired was to think it rather a selfish choice. Messi of course left Argentina as a child to join Barcelona and there have long been questions asked about how much playing for Argentina means to him
It might be that emotions were still raw when Messi announced his retirement and that, with a few days to mull over his decision, he could reverse it. It could also be possible that this is a ploy to have coach Gerado Martino removed. Certainly some credence was added to that theory following Sergio Aguero’s post-match quotes:
“The likelihood is that Messi is not the only one that will leave the national team. There are several players like me that are evaluating whether or not to continue.”
Are Messi, Aguero and co playing a risky, underhanded game to try and convince the AFA to appoint someone more to their taste? Or was Sunday one failure to many for this generation of Argentinian internationals to take? Maybe the travel from Europe to South America has taken its toll. It must get tougher for the likes of Messi, Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain to complete those mid-season, long haul journeys as they pass the peak and head in to the twilight of their careers.
The decision to step away from international football would, one assumes, be slightly easier for his high profile team mates than for Messi himself, for he is the only one of them who would be in the conversation as to who is the best player of his generation, maybe of any generation.
Will Messi’s failure to lead Argentina to a trophy count against him in years to come when his place in the football pantheon is debated? Diego Maradona and Pele can both point to their World Cup winner’s medals and argue that possession of them puts them above Messi in terms of achievement.
Say what you will about Cristiano Ronaldo’s demeanour at Euro 2016 but there’s no doubting his commitment to his country’s team. One gets the feeling Ronaldo will still be wheeled out to play for Portugal long after his top level club career is finished, such is his passion for playing for Portugal (and the spotlight that comes with it.)
Ronaldo also gets extra marks in his personal battle with Messi for having stretched his wings during his career, which has taken in spells in Portugal, England and Spain. It seems unlikely Messi will play for anyone but Barcelona (save perhaps for a season in Qatar/China/wherever the money is in a few years’ time.) Having not tested himself in a different environment, Messi has taken the easy option. An argument could be made that he’s done the same by walking away from international football before turning 30.
Time will tell whether this was the right decision, the wrong one or indeed just a temporary one. Either way, as brilliant a gift as he’s been to football, if he walks away from the international game now, there will always be that gap in his CV. Whether Messi is really concerned about this, we’ll probably never know. You can bet though, that somewhere, Ronaldo and Maradona are affording themselves a wry smile.