East Rutherford (United States) (AFP) – Lionel Messi’s tearful decision to quit the international team left Argentinian football in turmoil Monday after a traumatic penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the Copa America final.
The heartbroken Barcelona superstar left the field in tears after missing a spot-kick in the shootout in the United States on Sunday — Messi’s fourth straight defeat in a major final with Argentina.
“For me the national team is over,” the 29-year-old told reporters.
“I’ve done all I can, I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.
“It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”
Manchester City star Sergio Aguero warned that other players could also quit the national side.
“We were all devastated in the dressing room, particularly Leo, I’d never seen him in such a state,” he said.
“It’s likely that Messi won’t be the only one to go into international retirement,” said Aguero. “Several players are wondering whether to continue. It’s our toughest defeat to take.”
Aguero did not say whether he would follow Messi in quitting but his name and that of Javier Mascherano were mentioned in media reports.
– ‘Don’t go, Leo’ –
Fans in Argentina did not want to believe that their superstar was quitting.
“He will not leave — you will see,” said Ricardo Miranda, 47, a passerby in a rainy Buenos Aires on Monday morning.
“It is really unfair. Messi played well. It was the coach’s mistake to field injured players.”
Messi and the squad were expected back in Buenos Aires later on Monday.
Fans on social media called on the superstar to change his mind with hashtags such as “NotevayasLeo” — Don’t go Leo — and “Messiquedate” — Messi stay.
Messi’s dramatic announcement followed Argentina’s third loss in a major final in three years.
They were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the final of the 2014 World Cup and lost on penalties, also to Chile, in the 2015 Copa America final.
Messi also tasted defeat with Argentina in the final of the 2007 Copa America.
– Record-breaker –
Despite a glittering career that has seen him named FIFA World Player of the Year five times, Messi has faced persistent sniping from critics in Argentina.
Yet he received support on Sunday from Chile’s victorious Argentine coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who maintained that Messi is the best player ever.
“As well as an admiration for Messi, I’m driven very much by his numbers,” Pizzi said of Messi’s record-breaking career.
“Messi’s numbers are unmatched, and I don’t think they will ever be matched because it’s impossible for a player to find the things that Messi finds.”
While universally regarded as one of the greatest footballers ever, he has regularly been targeted for his inability to land a major title with Argentina.
Messi’s failure to match the achievements of Diego Maradona, who single-handedly carried the team to victory in the 1986 World Cup, has often been held against him.
Pizzi said comparisons with Maradona were unfair.
“My generation can’t compare him with Maradona, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer,” Pizzi said. “But it seems that the best player in history played in the United States. For me the numbers are impossible to argue with.”
Maradona has often taken potshots at Messi, criticizing him on the eve of the tournament.
“He’s a really good person, but he has no personality,” Maradona said. “He lacks the character to be a leader.”
– Globe-trotting –
Messi’s bombshell decision comes after a grueling season disrupted by injury last year.
He recovered to help Barcelona win the Spanish title once more and was relishing the prospect of leading Argentina at the Copa America Centenario.
His commitment to playing for Argentina was reflected in his decision to fly from Spain to Argentina for a low-key friendly against Honduras shortly before the tournament, where he suffered a back injury.
He returned to Spain to give evidence at his trial for tax fraud before jetting off to the United States to join up with his Argentina team-mates.
Although he was injured for his team’s opening group game against Chile, he came on as a substitute in a 5-0 hammering of Panama to score a hat-trick in 19 minutes.
He then equaled Argentina’s international goalscoring record of 54, held by Gabriel Batistuta, in the quarter-finals before setting a new mark with his 55th international goal in the semi-final win over the United States.
In Messi’s adopted home Barcelona, the press voiced surprise and sympathy.
“Everything he has had with Barcelona, he has lacked with Argentina,” said Catalan daily Sport.
“In Barcelona, Messi is God. Not in Argentina.”
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