Whilst the eyes of much of the world has been on the European Championship these past few weeks, Chile’s second successive Copa América title was followed by a scarcely believable story that sent shockwaves reverberating around the world.
Eleven years after making his debut, and four final defeats later, the world’s best player Lionel Messi retired from international football. He led his side to the final of the Copa América yet missed a penalty in the decisive shootout against the Chileans, before later calling it a day.
In Argentina’s semi-final win against the USA, Messi scored a stunning free kick that made him his country’s all-time record goal scorer with 55 goals – one more than legendary Gabriel Batistuta. Yet, it has been said that there is less room for forgiveness and less leniency for Messi than the likes of Diego Maradona.
Much of that supposed ill feeling comes from the fact that Messi left his native homeland for Spain at the age of 13 to pursue a career with Barcelona – no doubt the correct call, but Argentina’s faithful would’ve preferred to see him break through into the game for one of their clubs.
From an early age, the inevitable comparisons with Maradona surrounded the furore around his immense talent, and the likes of Ronaldinho, Andrés Iniesta and countless others have all described him as the best player to ever live.
However, Ronaldinho and Iniesta have both won World Cup trophies. The ultimate goal in international football is to get your hands on the famous trophy and be crowned the world champions. It is an ambition that Messi has had through three World Cups, yet it has eluded him.
He came close in 2014, captaining the side to the final before an extra time goal by Germany’s Mario Gotze clinched the crown. Messi was – somewhat controversially – named the tournament’s best player but that did little to soften the blow.
What is so frustrating for anybody that has followed Messi’s career is that, for all his individual and club level honours, he has always fallen short internationally.
This is a player that has won five Ballon d’Ors, four Champions League trophies and eight league titles, yet he cannot seem to repeat the feat on the international stage. That maybe says more about the calibre of his Barca teammates than his own ability, but he has clearly reached a point of such disappointment that he feels he can try no more.
One Olympic gold medal does not do him justice, and he may be joined by arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the best players to never win a major international honour. Like Messi, the closest Ronaldo has come to date is a defeat in a final. That Euro 2004 final against Greece was a defeat that left him distraught and adamant he would lead Portugal to glory. He has, in turn, become Portugal’s record scorer, and made more appearances than anyone else for the national side.
However, unless Ronaldo gets a European Championship medal this summer, you have to feel he won’t win a major honour with his country, and when he plays for Portugal he seems a frustrated figure, just like Messi has been in an Argentina shirt recently.
Teammates, pundits and ex-Argentina international stars have all been pleading with Messi to change his mind, to give the fans one more World Cup, to try and get that elusive title when the tournament comes around again in two years and Messi will be 31. But if Messi really has made up his mind and really won’t be reversing his decision, then it is a massive moment in footballing history.
It would mean a player widely regarded as the best to ever walk the planet will have fallen short on the biggest stage. It will mean Messi will never be a world champion. And if rumours that his fellow internationals are contemplating following their captain into retirement prove to be true, it would mean a huge rebuilding job for Argentina.