Messi’s Retirement Leaves His Career as a Global Soccer Icon Unfinished

Chile denied Argentina and Chile denied Lionel Messi – yet again, at the final hurdle, in the one game that rules them all – the Copa final. In bitter disappointment, Messi said he won’t play for Argentina again.

This game was to crown Lionel Messi as the greatest Argentine player in history – an uber-Maradona, rightfully in the pantheon of the footballing gods. He was to leave a profound legacy to La Albiceleste and generations to come, but, instead, scooping his ball high into the air at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Messi faced a painful déjà vu: another final lost on penalties, the most painful of ways.

Not that Messi had not tried. Again, he was the linchpin of the Argentine team, but he failed to apply a finishing touch in a stalemate that was, at times, both brutal and cynical. Argentina seemed to suffer from a psychological predicament – the fear of defeat in that one live-defining game, that one game to end a 23-year drought.

The Argentines have been chokers in recent tournaments. At the last World Cup, a late extra-time goal from Germany’s Mario Gotze proved too much. Last year, Chile won the Copa América final after a penalty shoot-out. Argentina didn’t score a single goal in six hours of final soccer, a flabbergasting stat considering the wealth of options Argentina has up front.

Yesterday, from the moment Gonzalo Higuaín missed an early chance after an error by Gary Medel, Chile seemed destined to win the match. And so, La Roja did, but Messi wasn’t expected to miss from the spot. That doesn’t fit the narrative of a global soccer icon. He is dehumanized. He cannot and must not fail – but he did. He ballooned the ball over the bar in his 112th game for Argentina since making his debut in 2005 as an 18-year-old.

Messi wasn’t expected to miss from the spot. That doesn’t fit the narrative of a global soccer icon.

Messi has scored for Argentina 55 times, including five times during this Copa. He has surpassed Gabriel Batistuta’s all-time leading mark of 54 for Argentina courtesy of a superb free-kick in last week’s semifinal against the U.S.

“Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they’ll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a soccer player to do what Messi has done,” said Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Chile coach from Argentina. “My generation can’t compare him to [Diego] Maradona, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer. But I think we saw today’s best player play here in the United States.”

Pizzi’s words were commendable, but Messi’s disappointment was everywhere. He slumped to the ground as the Chileans celebrated. The Barcelona player simply doesn’t seem compatible with Argentina. It’s an existential conundrum – different coaches have tinkered with their lineup to accommodate Messi, get the best out of him, extract his divine qualities for the benefit of the team, but no plan has ever worked.

It’s akin to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo at Sweden and Portugal respectively, but with the marked difference that they are lone stars in an ensemble of blue collar players. Messi has always been surrounded by a good team.

Does Messi’s decision – words spoken in disappointment and frustration – mark the end of an era? He has caused a domino effect, with Javier Mascherano and Sergio Agüero announcing that they are retiring from the international stage too. Others like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Angel Di María are considering retirement after one disappointment too many. Therein lies the hope that Messi may renounce his plans, when he is more cool-headed and has time to reflect. Come the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Argentina will need its talisman at its best. A year later, there is another Copa América to be disputed.

Messi has still got plenty of international soccer in him left. He has already won everything at club level – there is nothing left to conquer with FC Barcelona. A tournament victory with the national team would be the real coronation of his career.