As Chilean midfielder Francisco Silva thumped home the winning penalty last night in the MetLife Stadium, it represented yet another defeat for Argentina and Lionel Messi.
The best player of his generation has now lost four major finals for his country as their wait for a major trophy reaches 23 years. It was the third consecutive year in which Barcelona’s talisman had come so near yet so far – in 2014 they lost the World Cup final 1-0 in extra time to Germany and last year they lost the Copa America final to Chile on penalties.
Unlike last year when Chile were the best team in the continental competition, this year it seemed like it was Argentina’s time to assert their dominance and put themselves in good stead for the remainder of the World Cup qualification campaign. 18 goals scored in their five games before the final, conceding just two en route to the final makes for fantastic reading. Their dominance went beyond that though, as Messi seemed to have galvanised the fantastic crop around him into arguably the best Argentine team since the era of Maradona and co, with them playing some fantastic football throughout.
It was not to be however and they finished as runners-up for the fourth time in the previous five iterations of the competition.
In the aftermath of big defeats and indeed following victories that can represent the realisation of a lifetime’s work, things are said that may not be meant and therefore we would be forgiven for taking Lionel Messi’s international retirement as a little premature.
However, if it is the end for the most talented footballer in the world, he will have had a mighty international career that is the envy of almost all – much like his glittering club career.
He burst on to the international scene at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships, scoring six goals (including two in the final against Nigeria), and went on to record 14 goals in 18 youth internationals. He was later picked for the 2008 Olympics, scoring twice as Argentina won their second consecutive Olympic Gold medal.
At major tournaments for the national team he has always seemed to give his all. 8 goals across four Copa America tournaments and 5 goals at World Cups is not a record to be ashamed of. This tournament was arguably his best, although his performances in Brazil in 2014 run this year’s feats close. Across the six games he was impeccable, scoring five and also laying on four goals for his teammates. There was only one mistake made by the Magician at this tournament and it was at the moment that meant the most.
If this is goodbye from Messi, he will be sorely missed by Argentina. This tournament saw him match and then overtake Gabriel Batistuta’s national goal record and his slate currently reads 113 games played, 55 goals scored.
Among his many accolades are being the youngest Argentine scorer and youngest Argentine captain at a World Cup finals, whilst he holds the honour of being the only man to score against all 9 other South American nations.
Many have said that to be considered as one of the all-time greats, Messi needed to win something on the international level but football is not that simple. Greats like Johan Cruyff and Ferenc Puskas won nothing at international level, whilst the phenomenal Alfredo Di Stefano won just one Copa America. He didn’t need to win last night, or the year before in Santiago or in the Maracana two years before but they would perhaps of provided the cherry on top of the proverbial cake that has been his career.
It would be sad for the last image of Messi donned in the famous Albiceleste to be the image of him crying in the centre of a field in New Jersey, but it could very well be and in many ways that image would sum up the juxtaposition of his international and club careers. Throughout his career he has been at the heart of a clinical Barcelona side that has brought him 28 trophies, with countless more set to follow but at international level it has been profligacy that has let him down and it could be defined by the mantra of ‘almost but not quite’.
Messi does deserve the chance to hoist up a major trophy, with the 2018 World Cup in Russia perhaps offering the best chance of that but as things stand he remains retired, with last night’s defeat perhaps one too many. The notorious Argentine coach Helenio Herrera once said that luck doesn’t exist in football but an element of it undoubtedly does and for Messi I think he has had just about as much bad luck as any individual deserves.