Heartbroken Lionel Messi was just less lucky than Maradona
The Argentine ace retires from international football without a winner's medal after a fourth major final defeat
After missing a penalty in the decisive shoot-out that saw Chile beat Argentina in the Copa America, the pain of a fourth major final defeat proved too much for Lionel Messi to bear. In the wake of yet another heartbreak for the Albiceleste, the 29-year-old announced his international retirement.
Messi took Argentina's first penalty of the shoot-out after Arturo Vidal had missed for Chile, but his effort flew over the bar.
Lucas Biglia also missed as Chile retained the title they won a year ago. The defeat left Messi with a fourth runners-up medal to add to his collection from the 2007 and 2015 Copa Americas and the 2014 World Cup.
"It was not supposed to end like this. Not in a cramped corridor at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, with an unwanted runners-up medal in his wash bag," says Jonathan Liew of the Daily Telegraph. "But four defeats in major finals over the course of a decade have finally broken his heart. Messi's love affair with the national team is over."
His decision has reopened the debate over his loyalty to Argentina, the country he left at the age of 13 to play for Barcelona.
"There are those in Argentina who claim that Messi’s devotion to the national team has never matched his devotion to Barcelona, and after this decision those same voices are emerging again," says Liew.
It is an idea that has been rejected by Messi's team-mates, but his relationship with his national side remains complex," says the writer.
"Argentina accepted Messi as long as he kept winning them football games; Messi accepted Argentina through a sense of filial duty and as a chance to cement his legend. And so it was always a relationship contingent on results: as Messi inspired Argentina to the World Cup Final two years ago, the fans sang his name, worshipped him as a saviour. When Argentina failed, Messi was more often than not lumped with the blame."
It was never the easiest of relationships. Tim Vickery of the BBC notes that Messi had voiced dissatisfaction with the Argentine FA during the tournament, and it is an organisation that remains in "disarray" following the death of Julio Grondona after 35 years as chairman in 2014.
Announcing his retirement Messi spoke of his "sadness", and that is all he ever got from Argentina, says Rory Smith of The Times.
Now it appears that Messi will end his career without a major international honour to his name. "To some, that would leave an asterisk next to his career and means that he will never quite be regarded as the equal of Pele and Diego Maradona, the two finest in history, both of whom shone at more than one World Cup," says Smith.
But times have changed. "The Champions League has replaced the World Cup as the ultimate test in football, its very highest level; that the elite club game is a level above and beyond its international equivalent has been proved, amply, in France over the last two weeks or so," he adds.
"Messi will retire from international football without a trophy to his name. He has, though, four Champions League medals to make up for it, [with] silver and gold acquired by overcoming the best teams and the best players in the world. That he has not won a World Cup does not diminish him and all that he has done. It is, simply, a huge sadness."
Messi is also unlucky compared to Maradona, says Vickery of the BBC. Had Jorge Burruchaga not scored in the 1986 World Cup final "then maybe the star of Maradona would not shine quite so brightly in Argentina", he says.
Conversely Gonzalo Higuain has wasted glorious opportunities to score in each of the past three finals Argentina have lost. "But had Higuain taken his chances, then Messi would now be swimming in international titles, and no one would dare to doubt his place among the greatest of all time."