The stage couldn’t have been better for Argentina superstar Lionel Messi. As he stepped to the penalty spot before more than 82,000 spectators at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in the Copa America Centenario final, Messi had the opportunity to set the tone as Argentina's first taker in the shootout and help secure his country’s first major title in 30 years after 120 scoreless minutes against Chile.
Instead, the same left foot that’s dazzled his legion of fans and broken the hearts of his opponents failed the 29-year-old with a shanked shot that flew over the crossbar. Argentina would go on to lose 4-2 in the shootout, falling once again to Chile after tasting defeat in last year's Copa America.
La Albiceleste are now runners-up in four of the last five Copa Americas and two years removed from a second-place World Cup result, all with Messi at the helm and shouldering at least partial blame for the letdowns.
For a player who’s accomplished so much on the club level and to a major extent the international stage, Messi displayed a rare moment of vulnerability by declaring his retirement from Argentina’s national team immediately after the loss. Whether he means it or not, the declaration does leave Argentina’s potential status as a 2018 World Cup favorite in serious jeopardy.
"My thinking right now and thinking about it in the locker room, I'm done playing with the national team," Messi told reporters after the match.
"I tried my hardest. It's been four finals, and I was not able to win. I tried everything possible. It hurts me more than anyone, but it is evident that this is not for me. I want more than anyone to win a title with the national team, but unfortunately, it did not happen."
To make matters worse, Messi’s plans may have triggered a dangerous cascade of retirements for Argentina. According to ESPNFC, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia also intend to retire, while Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega and Gonzalo Higuain are contemplating their plans for the future.
"Lamentably, the most f---ed up is Leo, because of the penalty,” Aguero told reporters. “It's the worst I've seen him in the dressing room.
"We are hurting because of Messi. There's no explanation to what happened to him. He tried it all to get the championship for us. For us, he's still the best player of the world.
"I really don't know how to explain [the loss]. We tried and did everything we could do, and out of the past two finals this has been the toughest one to swallow. I truly don't know what the other players are thinking, but I've never seen anything like what I saw today.”
Most signs had pointed to Argentina finally ending its title drought with some quality efforts leading up to the final. The top-ranked side began its quest with a 2-1 triumph over Chile, then proceeded to outscore Panama and Bolivia by a 8-0 total to easily take Group D with 10 total goals.
Then came the 4-1 blasting of Venezuela to open the knockout phase and a 4-0 embarrassment of the host nation United States. Through it all Messi netted five goals and assisted on four others, becoming his nation’s highest all-time goal scorer with 55 over 113 appearances.
The fact that Messi’s experienced both significant highs and lows this season cannot be ignored. Barcelona managed to repeat as La Liga and Copa del Rey champions but endured a 3-2 aggregate loss to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals that dashed any chance of repeating last year’s treble. There was also the serious knee injury that limited the start of Messi’s La Liga campaign.
On the personal front, Messi dealt with links to the Panama Papers, an international financial fiasco that has yet to fully play out. This month, Messi appeared in a Barcelona court to testify against charges of tax fraud.
Those personal issues combined with failure to come through for country make Messi’s initial gut reaction quite understandable. For a player who has accomplished so much for his club, it has to be particularly distressing to once again fall short in another international competition.
However, there’s plenty of reason to assume Messi’s announcement was made from a very emotional rather than rational place. The next World Cup, to be held in Russia, is only two years away, and Messi will be just 31 years old. By 2018 Messi might be just starting his decline as one of the world’s best players, but he should still be one of the game's most feared scorers and all-around players.
It may be difficult to imagine such a prominent player skipping such an important event. Messi, of course, has plenty of time to reconsider his decision. Players dream of lifting the World Cup trophy, and should Messi finally capture his first, there would be no debate as to his place with the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.
Should Messi stand firm on his decision, he would arguably be the most prolific no-show for a World Cup since 1978, when Johan Cruyff decided to not play for the Netherlands. Cruyff's decision was later learned to be due to kidnapping attempts on him and his family in Barcelona.