For the third straight summer, Lionel Messi leaves a final of an international tournament with Argentina empty handed. For the second straight time, it’s in the Copa America, losing in penalty kicks to Chile.
The 2016 version of the annual Messi-Argentina disappointment was extremely painful. After a goalless draw that included two red cards, one to each team, and a match that was more about Brazilian referee Héber Lopes handing out cards left and right, we made it to penalty kicks. A year ago, Messi scored the first one and his teammates missed the rest. This year, Messi sent the opening penalty into orbit, and Argentina lost another final.
It’s been that way for the national side since 1993, when they won the Copa America. In the last five Copa America tournaments, they’ve finished as runner-ups four times. Twice losing to Brazil, twice to Chile. The gold medal won by Messi in 2008 doesn’t erase his runner up status with the national side: In the 2014 World Cup and in three Copa America tournaments. When Argentina hosted the tournament in 2011, the pressure seemed to be weighing down on Messi, crushing him. Argentina didn’t even make it to the semifinal that year.
Messi announced after the match that he’s retiring from international football. It’s hard to say if it’s something he’s actually been thinking about, or just some kneejerk reaction, coming from the disappointment of missing a crucial penalty kick, and tasting defeat at the toughest moment in the Albiceleste uniform. Glory seems to come easily for him at Barcelona. When playing for Argentina, it seems the criticism, the expectations from a nation starving for success and maybe the never ending comparisons to Diego Maradona have finally been too much for him.
I’m not sure this retirement lasts. Yes, Messi is 29, and has been playing for the national side since 2005, with 112 caps and a record breaking 55 goals for the national side. Maybe the World Cup Final in 2014 is the best Argentina can do at the moment. But he’ll be 31 in the next World Cup. Maybe a bit over the hill (who knows with him), but probably still one of the best in the world, if not still the best. If not for nationalistic and patriotic reasons, the bug to try and finally win one for himself, so anyone denying his rightful place on top of the pyramid of footballing history will shut up, will be too strong for him to resist.