Football fans around the world were left dumbstruck after Argentina and Barcelona icon Lionel Messi announced his international retirement following Argentina’s heartbreaking loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final here.
“It’s not meant for me. For me the national team is over. I’ve done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion,” the five-time World Footballer of the Year said after the match at the MetLife Stadium here on Sunday night.
“It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”
For a player used to winning everything in sight at the club level with FC Barcelona, Messi’s international career followed a depressingly familiar pattern of disappointment and underachievement.
With Barcelona, Messi has won eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues. But his only major international honour is the 2008 Olympic gold, with Argentina now having lost three major finals in three years. Argentina were beaten 0-1 in the 2014 World Cup final by Germany before two Copa America final defeats by Chile on penalties.
He was also on the losing side against Brazil in the 2007 Copa America final.
Messi’s last appearance at the international stage followed a similar routine as Argentina were by far the superior team throughout the tournamnt only to inexplecably lose their scoring touch in the final against a team they had beaten 2-1 in their campaign opener.
After the match finished 0-0 in 120 minutes, Chile won 4-2 on penalties. The penalty shootout in Sunday’s final was especially painful for Messi as he put Argentina’s very first effort over the bar.
Lucas Biglia also missed from 12 yards, with Chilean substitute Francisco Silva scoring the decisive spot-kick. Arturo Vidal was the only Chilean player to miss his attempt.
The defeat left Messi distraught and almost in tears as the Chilean players and fans burst into wild celebrations all around the stadium.
“It’s tough, it’s not the time for analysis. 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,” he told reporters.
“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,” the 29-year-old rued.
“It’s been four finals, I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over.”
The dimunitive dynamo from the city of Rosario in central Argentina made his international debut in 2005 as an 18-year-old. He has played 113 international matches and is the highest ever scorer for his country with 55 goals.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino sympathised with Messi. “The burden of the consecutive games (lost) has been accumulating these last two years. He feels the way any football player must feel when he gets to a final and then loses,” he said.
“Certainly to lose again is too painful to act any differently.”
Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi rated Messi as the best ever footballer.
“On top of having an admiration for Messi, I’m driven very much by the numbers. Because I know what it means to value certain numbers and Messi’s numbers are unmatched, and I don’t think they will ever be matched because it’s impossible for a player to find the things that Messi finds,” Pizzi said.
“The people, at times, are very particular when it comes to valuing certain things. I do it from a point of view that’s very personal – everyone should do so from a personal point of view – and in my point of view Messi is the best player of all time,” the 48-year-old added.
Pizzi, who is also from Argentina, asserted that Messi has always faced the pressure of living upto the legacy of the legendary Diego Maradona, but insisted that it is difficult to compare the two.
“My generation can’t compare (Messi) with Maradona, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer,” he remarked.
“But it seems to be the best player in history played today here in the United States and for me the numbers are irrefutable.”