Why Lionel Messi really retired from international football - is he gone for good?
As soon as Lionel Messi sent the first penalty into orbit, he knew. His Barcelona teammate Claudio Bravo had been sent the wrong way but it did not matter. Near the centre circle, Chile’s Arturo Vidal, standing away from his teammates after missing the first penalty himself, heaved a sigh of relief.
La Roja smelled blood and their confidence only grew. They put away the rest of their penalties as Argentina’s Lucas Biglia missed his to give Chile a second Copa America title in two years.
There was something about Messi’s behaviour soon after. He wasn’t his usual self, even in defeat. Even during the shootout, he was seen walking away from his teammates, dazed and mentally absent from the pitch – shocked and saddened.
Chile erupted in celebration but Messi simply walked towards the bench, sat down in a corner and surveyed everything before him with a sombre expression. There was no congratulating the opponents, no comforting teammates as captains should, nothing.
Moments later, the worst was confirmed by the Argentine football team’s Twitter account.
“It’s difficult. It’s a tough moment to analyse. For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion. 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.
“I think this is best for everyone. First of all for me, and then for everyone. I think there's a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, as we are not satisfied reaching a final and not winning it.
“It's very hard, but the decision is taken. Now I will not try more and there will be no going back.” – Lionel Messi
Why is Messi quitting on Argentina?
On a superficial level, it does look like Messi is nothing but a sore loser who simply does not get his way with Argentina as he does with Barcelona. After winning 28 trophies with his club, including eight La Liga titles and four Champions League trophies, just a single Olympic gold medal with Argentina pales in comparison.
Dig a little deeper and the real cause is laid bare. Specifically, the part where he says it’s better for him. Because a “lot of people want this”.
Messi has simply had enough of the criticism levelled at him when the Albiceleste fail on the international stage. He said as much in an interview last year after having lost out on the 2015 Copa America and 2014 World Cup.
“We are still hearing these criticisms, people killing us,” Messi had said in 2015. “P*** off, we got to the World Cup final and the Copa.
“We didn’t win them but we didn’t lose in the quarter-finals. Sometimes you don’t know if that would be better or worse!”
Although it was a momentary lapse in a calm demeanour of a man who respects and loves the adulation of the fans, he has a genuine point. In both Copa finals, it has been a penalty shootout that decided the result – an outcome that is sometimes based on chance rather than technique. And they lost the 2014 World Cup final by a mere whisker in extra-time.
And yet the side have not had peace. Most teams would be welcomed home as heroes for getting to the final, but this squad has been vilified for not “fulfilling their potential”. Even his manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino had said: “If I were in Messi's place I would have stopped playing with the national team a long time ago.”
It gives a lot of perspective on the pressure Messi has been under in recent years. Accused of giving preference to club over country in recent years has finally taken its toll.
And it is a trend that has been ever-present long since before Messi became a key member of the squad.
Another Argentine no.10, who incidentally shares the same birthday, has had to suffer a similar fate. Juan Roman Riquelme had retired from international football in 2006 for similar reasons. He could not bear to see his mother, who had been hospitalised twice, suffer due to the constant criticism and disapproval of the majority of the fanbase.
“There has been a lot of bad blood and I don’t want to make her suffer,” Riquelme had said. “My mother is my mother and I can’t compare her with the Argentina shirt or anything else.”
The playmaker was only 28 at the time and had even topped the assists table at the World Cup. But he saw it fit to leave than be stigmatised by the fans.
Has Messi’s retirement caused irreparable damage?
At first glance, it seems like a decision one would make in the heat of the moment. The last thing a player wants is to have a microphone thrust into their face to answer questions by reporters who, sometimes, can be without any sympathy in search of the perfect headline.
But this was a little different. As his teammates filed past him, Messi looked lost and even let out an uncomfortable chuckle, probably at the enormity of his decision. He was a man looking to shun the spotlight but it is inescapable when you are the captain and also the reigning Ballon d’Or winner.
His good friend and teammate Sergio Aguero described the situation in the dressing room. It was one of abject despair and not something Argentina fans would want to hear.
“This is the worst dressing room I've ever been in,” Aguero explained. “Worse than the final in the World Cup in Brazil and the other Copa America. There are several players who are evaluating not continuing with the national team.”
That alone is a disturbing thought. This is one of the finest teams Argentina have produced in the years since their last trophy in the 1993 Copa America. A generation of world class players with Messi leading the likes of Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Mascherano – international football would be poorer without any of them.
It has already had an effect with Mascherano also announcing his retirement from international football. But at 32, he may have looked to retire nonetheless, failing to leave on a high. But to rebuild the squad from scratch will take some doing.
Will Messi really retire at 29?
It is too early to say. As soon as the dust settles, the Barcelona talisman will have some time to reflect on his decision. Argentina fans have gone through a roller-coaster of emotions. Five wins in five games and a win over Chile in the group stage had given them hope that was shattered as soon as Francisco Silva’s spot kick found the back of the net.
Frustration and anger may soon give way to desperation and anguish. If one player announcing his retirement was bad enough, an entire generation of players leaving the national team at their peak is almost unprecedented.
Memories of Zinedine Zidane announcing his retirement after Euro 2004 only to return for the 2006 World Cup come to mind. Then, too, a number of players such as Claude Makelele, Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly had quit the national team leaving Les Bleues without leadership in their spine.
Both Makelele and Thuram had also returned along with Zidane after Raymond Domenech convinced them – perhaps one of few good things the polarising coach accomplished with the French national team.
How Argentina bounce back ahead of the 2018 World Cup could come down to Messi’s final decision. As things stand, they are currently in third place behind Uruguay and Ecuador. The Argentine Football Association also needs to sort itself out after it was placed under administration by FIFA a few days ago. Did a possible imminent ban also play a role?
Messi had once said he would quit playing football if he no longer enjoyed it. Currently, he does not enjoy football with Argentina and he has chosen to act on it. Whether he sticks to his decision is down to him.
“I can't imagine a national team without Messi,” Sergio Romero said after Messi announced his decision. “I think he'll reflect on it.”
Football fans worldwide can only hope he does.