Diego Maradona, the Argentina legend and World Cup champion, has come to the defense of superstar Lionel Messi after the country’s disappointing loss at the Copa America Centenario final last week and his subsequent retirement from international competition.
After failing on a fourth attempt to lead his country to a major crown, Messi has faced myriad ridicule for both missing his penalty and his inability to lead Argentina to a title. Some pundits have criticized Messi for placing more interest in succeeding at the club level than for his country.
But the always outspoken Maradona said in a radio interview Wednesday, that Argentina supporters should give the Barcelona star some space after the difficult loss and praised Messi’s stellar international work, calling him a "winner."
"Let's let Messi have his holidays," he said. "From now on, we have to build a unified idea, and if Messi says, 'I don't want more,' we will have to present another team."
Maradona had previously told Argentine daily newspaper La Nación that "Messi has to continue playing" and that the 29-year-old "still has a lot to give" ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Messi has made 113 appearances with Argentina since debuting in 2005 and, in June, became the country's all-time leading scorer with his 55th goal.
There have been calls for reforms of the Argentina Football Association (AFA) due to the national team's consistent failure to reach expectations. La Albiceleste has boasted of world-class talent over the past three decades, but players like Messi, Juan Sebastian Veron, Carlos Tevez and Javier Zanetti have failed to lift Argentina to glory.
Maradona, 55, helped lead Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986, and remains a legend for the soccer-rich nation. He served as the national team's manager at the 2010 World Cup but received criticism for his tactics and lack of professionalism.
The former Boca Juniors star also lashed out at AFA for their perceived incompetence, which some believe is a major reason Messi, and other stars like Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria, have considered quitting international competition.
"We must have done something wrong because the AFA is the way it is," he said. "Argentine football is how it is, and we will be paying for it."
His criticism of the AFA, rather than Messi, could also explain Maradona’s comments to his 1986 World Cup winning teammates in a Whatsapp message posted Wednesday.
"For us, we become an even greater team with each second that passes because we went out and played those two games at Azteca," Maradona said. "We didn't go and play against Chile, we went out and beat Germany. You understand the difference between the two teams."
Argentina hasn’t claimed a major title since 1993’s Copa America and came up short at the last two South American tournaments and the 2014 World Cup final.