Argentina captain Lionel Messi said late Sunday he planned to retire from the national team, shortly after losing his third final with Argentina in less than two years.
Messi missed his penalty shot in a shootout against Chile, allowing the defending champions to lift the Copa America Centenario trophy, and once the match was over Messi wept on the football pitch.
It was clearly too much to take for the man whom many consider to be the best footballer in history.
"The national team is over for me," he told Argentina's TyC sports TV channel after the game.
"It hurts me more than anyone not to be able to win a title with Argentina, but that's how it is. It didn't happen and unfortunately I leave without achieving it," he said.
At MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Messi failed once again to overcome something that felt almost like a curse.
He was unable to lead Argentina to victory in the Copa America final, just like in the decisive games of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America, and in the 2007 Copa America final when he was much younger.
To make matters worse, he missed his own shot in the shootout this time around.
"What happened to us again makes me really sad, and on top of everything I miss my own penalty shot. They had missed the first one, and it was really important to convert it to take the lead," he said.
All his efforts, and his impressive performances in the run-up to the final, were again in vain after the decisive game.
Those three finals will stain the record of a player who has won everything with his club, Barcelona, and individually. They also clearly took a major psychological toll.
"This is the worst I have seen him in the changing room," said fellow striker Sergio Aguero, Messi's Argentina room-mate and close friend.
Many Argentinians have slammed Messi for failing to produce with the national team the kinds of performances that earned him the Ballon d'Or in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015. More recently, fans in the football-crazy country have come to appreciate his unwavering efforts, but the results remain the same.
"Playing two finals in a row, not winning them and having the chance to play another one, now we all want to win it," Messi had said ahead of the game. "Winning is what matters now."
The Copa America Centenario saw Messi become the top scorer of all time for Argentina, with 55 goals, surpassing Gabriel Batistuta. He scored a hat-trick in less than 30 minutes against Panama, and two brilliant free kicks against Venezuela and the United States.
However, he could not shake off Chile's diligent pressure. He had to drop too far back and depended on felow strikers Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero to actually net the ball. Both came close, but the 120 minutes of play ended without a goal.
Argentina's third defeat in a final in barely two years had the aura of an epic failure. Messi's decision to step down from the national team turned it almost into a catastrophe.
At the Copa America Centenario, Messi had taken on a more mature role as team spokesman. The striker, who turned 29 on Friday, grew a thick beard in line with his new take on the captaincy.
He arrived in the US after travelling 30,000 kilometres in a few days, so he could train with Argentina, appear before a Spanish court where he faced tax evasion charges, and return to be with his team-mates. He suffered a tough blow to his back in a friendly, but worked hard on his recovery.
Messi had said that not winning the Copa America Centenario would be "disappointing," but his tears and his decision after the game made the massive understatement clear.
The pain caused by a string of key defeats might take its toll on the will of players beyond Messi to remain available for the national team.
"It's likely that Messi won't be the only one to leave the national team. Several of us are considering not continuing to play [with Argentina]," Aguero said.
Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain have already made the decision to retire from international duty, media reports said.
Monday, June 27, 2016 - 05:49
Friday, December 2, 2016 - 15:34