Buenos Aires: As Lionel Messi collapsed to his knees and planted his forehead into the MetLife Stadium turf, it was hard not to feel some compassion for the Argentine forward.
Minutes earlier, the 29-year-old had missed a penalty in the shootout defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final, reports Xinhua.
Despite Messi’s obvious anguish, nothing could prepare the football world for what was to follow when he emerged from the dressing rooms to speak to a clamouring media throng.
“For me, the national team is over,” Messi said, head bowed. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.”
This was a reminder that for all his seemingly superhuman qualities on a football pitch, the Barcelona talisman is in fact a mortal being.
The difference for Messi is that pressure means carrying the hopes of a nation of 41 million people, and that criticism is strewn relentlessly across news portals and social media feeds, or shouted at him whenever he steps out in public.
Messi’s decision to quit international football is probably the result of several factors that have made playing for Argentina too stressful to bear.
For a start, this was Argentina’s third defeat in a final of a major competition in as many years. In addition to last year’s Copa America misadventure — when they also lost in a penalty shootout to Chile in the final — the ‘Albiceleste’ fell to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final after an extra-time goal from Mario Gotze.
Moreover, Messi is still yet to win a major international tournament for Argentina, notwithstanding the 2008 Olympic Games. The ‘Albiceleste’s’ own title drought dates back to 1993.
There is also the simmering row between Argentina’s players and the country’s football association (AFA), which has been wracked by internal power struggles and financial difficulties.
During the Copa America Centenario, Argentina’s squad reportedly encountered regular travel delays, hotels that weren’t ready to receive them, long-haul flights without meals and a lack of gym equipment, among other issues.
Two days before Sunday’s final in New Jersey, the normally taciturn Messi was sufficiently riled to post a message on Instagram in which he described the AFA as a “disaster”.
In addition, Messi has had to endure constant and unfair comparisons with Argentina legend Diego Maradona, who recently said the Barcelona forward did “not have the personality to be a leader.”
In his brief exchange with journalists on Sunday night, Messi hinted that Maradona’s comments had contributed to his decision.
“I think there’s a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, as we are not satisfied reaching a final and not winning it,” Messi said.
But is it fair to label Messi a choker? That would seem harsh in the extreme.
Messi may have missed his spot-kick on Sunday, but he gave everything and then some during a 120-minute war of attrition, despite being constantly hacked down by a Chile defence that, like most other teams, had no other way of stopping him.
It should not be forgotten that centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain missed at least two gilt-edged chances, including one in the first half when he shot wide with only goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to beat. The Napoli forward has now let opportunities slip in each of Argentina’s last three tournament deciders.
Sergio Aguero, too, frittered away two chances to break the deadlock after replacing Higuain in the 70th minute. Then there was Marcos Rojo, sent off for kicking out an opponent before halftime, and Lucas Biglia, who also missed his penalty attempt.
In short, Messi can only do so much. Despite not making a starting appearance in this Copa America until the quarter-finals due to a back injury, Messi was the tournament’s second top scorer with five goals and led the assists chart with four.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner said there would be no turning back on his decision. But football fans will be hoping that, when the dust settles, his love for wearing Argentina’s colors will prove too strong to resist.
Two years remain until the next World Cup in Russia, when Rosario’s most famous son will still only be 31. Should he return, Messi still has time to rewrite his legacy.