Lionel Messi will feel a great weight lifted from his shoulders now that he has given up on leading Argentina to a major trophy but the shadow of the man who did manage it – Diego Maradona – will be cast longer than ever over his legacy this morning.
Maradona dropped a grenade into Argentina’s tournament hopes two weeks back when apparently off microphone he told Pele, no less, that he thought Messi did not have the personality to be a leader.
The microphones at the promotional event were on, conspiracy theorists believe Maradona knew that. Was it an attempt to motivate Messi? Or was it another dig in the ribs from one legend to another? The old master is now safe in the knowledge that Messi will never match him on the international stage.
Lionel Messi announced his international retirement after Argentina’s defeat to Chile at the Copa America
The Barcelona star was in tears after missing a penalty in the shootout as Chile emerged as champions
Messi is consoled by Sergio Aguero (right) and Mariano Andujar after the end of the match in New Jersey
Debut: vs Hungary 2005
Finals: Copa America 2007, 2015, 2016
World Cup 2014
Messi did his best to lead his country to a Copa America win. He even showed some uncharacteristic anger by tweeting his disgust at the Argentine Football Association’s (AFA) inability to organise the team’s travel plans last week, tweeting: ‘Once again waiting for a plane so we can take off. What a disaster the AFA are.’
It was a show of strength but it could still not be turned into tournament success.
‘For many people the essence of Argentine football contains kilos of Maradona and grams of Messi’ wrote Sebastian Fest in La Nacion recently.
Fest, the author of ‘The Messi Mystery’ was defending the Barcelona No 10 against Maradona’s preposterous suggestion he had no substance. But he was also stating a fact that for the national side’s most passionate supporters – there is still only one God and his name is Diego not Lionel.
Messi has struggled to come out of the shadow of Diego Maradona, who has criticised his personality
The 29-year-old has frequently had his patriotism questioned, having grown up in Spain from the age of 13
Messi has reached major tournament finals with Argentina in three consecutive years, losing all three
The forward is pictured celebrating Argentina’s victory at the World Youth Championships in 2005
On August 17, 2005 an 18-year-old Messi made his international debut coming off the bench against Hungary
However, Messi’s first cap of 113 ended in disappointing fashion as he was quickly sent off
A year later he scored his first-ever World Cup goal against Serbia – but has failed to win the tournament
Messi’s patriotism, as much as his leadership, has always been questioned. That is what comes from never having been idolised as a Boca, River or Independiente player before heading to Europe. No matter that despite the fact that he moved to Catalonia aged 13 he turned down Spain’s advances to make him one of theirs.
Vicente del Bosque admitted last year: ‘There was an attempt to do that (persude Messi to switch allegiances) but he decided to stick with the country of his birth; he remained steadfast.’
It’s four finals already, it’s not for me. I worked so hard for it. It was the thing I wanted more than anything. But it just wasn’t to be.
Lionel Messi on his decision to retire from international football
Messi also showed his commitment by travelling 30,000 kilometres in a few days so he could train with Argentina ahead of the Copa America, then appear before a Spanish court where he faced tax evasion charges and return to be with his team-mates for the tournament.
But none of that is enough to convince so many in his homeland that playing for his country means as much to him, as it does to a Boca hero such as Carlos Tevez or a former River player such as Gonzalo Higuain.
Had he lifted silverware everything would have changed but the silverware has eluded him.
‘It’s four finals already, it’s not for me,’ Messi said as he announced his international retirement on Sunday. ‘I worked so hard for it. It was the thing I wanted more than anything. But it just wasn’t to be.’
Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo watches on as Messi fires his spot-kick over the crossbar on Sunday night
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner collapsed to the ground after failing to hit the target from 12 yards
Two years ago, Messi was part of the Argentina side which was beaten 1-0 by Germany in the World Cup final
Messi is embraced by Maradona in 2010 but the Argentina icon has been critical of the forward since
MESSI’S CAREER IN NUMBERS
113 – caps for Argentina.
55 – goals for Argentina. His five goals in the 2016 Copa America saw him pass Gabriel Batistuta as his nation’s all-time leading scorer.
170 – Messi’s height in centimetres (5ft 6in).
72 – Messi’s weight in kilograms (11st 5lbs).
47 – seconds into his Argentina debut before he was sent off, against Hungary in 2005, aged 18, after coming on as a substitute.
2008 – Olympic gold in Beijing is Messi’s only major international honour.
453 – goals for Barcelona, in 531 games, including a Primera Division record of 312 goals.
8 – Primera Division titles with Barcelona.
4 – Champions League wins with Barca.
5 – times he has won the FIFA Ballon d’Or, as the world’s best player (in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015).
He won gold with Argentina in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Under 20 World Cup in 2005 all of which seemed to hail the dawn of a glorious future for Argentina. But he has been a beaten finalist four times since.
He was a runner-up in the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 and in the 2014 World Cup.
Sunday’s final was his third failure at the final hurdle of an international tournament in as many years and the emotion was too much as, through tears, he told the world he was quitting after the final whistle.
Team-mate Sergio Romero hoped there was some room for reconsideration.
‘I think he said it because he was emotional,’ he said.
And it is true that Messi has been on the brink before but with team-mate and close friend Javier Mascherano also considering his international future this may be the point of no return.
He walks away as his country’s all-time top scorer after moving on to 55 goals in the semi-final success over USA and going past Gabriel Batistuta.
Messi and Aguero show off their Olympic gold medals after Argentina’s success at the 2008 Games in Beijing
The Barca star walks past the Copa America trophy following defeat to Chile in the 2015 final in Santiago
Messi collects a runner-up medal from FIFA president Gianni Infantino after the loss to Chile in this year’s final
And he can also line up the Ballon d’Or trophies having won the biggest individual prize in football in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015. But what he really wanted has remained beyond his grasp.
When asked whether his decision was final on Sunday night. He said: ‘I think so. That is what I feel right now.’
Ahead of the 2018 World Cup there will be attempts to get him to change his mind and whoever’s task it is to take Argentina into that tournament their first job will be to talk Messi around. At 29 his international retirement comes scandalously early.
He was crying on the pitch at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, after missing in the penalty shootout, as Argentina lost 4-2 to Chile. Football should shed a tear too if he sticks to his decision and we never see him again in an Argentina shirt.
Messi was in tears at the end of Sunday’s game against Chile and he subsequently announced his retirement