It’s become a sad, almost pitiable summer ritual—watching a forlorn Lionel Messi shuffle past a trophy he can’t touch with a shocked, vacant stare on his face.
If there’s a sad chapter to his remarkable soccer story, it’s about the strange disconnect he’s had, at times, with his homeland. Messi, now 29, left Argentina at 13 and has been more blaugrana than albiceleste since.
While he’s been all conquering at Barcelona, his international success has been limited to an U-20 World Cup in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal three years later. The eye test suggests he’s every bit the player Diego Maradona was, and Messi’s club and personal accolades offer evidence he’s the best ever. But he hasn’t cemented his legacy. Without winning a major senior international honor, his relationship with Argentina continues to be as much about his absence as his ability. The questions and comparisons continue. Maradona himself said in June that Messi “has no personality” and “lacks the character to be a leader.”
The Copa América Centenario offered a unique and appealing lifeline. Thrown together quickly once the U.S. Soccer Federation received sufficient assurance that CONMEBOL and CONCACAF were in the legal clear, the tournament was a pleasantly surprising success. Fans turned up, the famous players who weren’t Neymar gave it a go and the host U.S. advanced to the semifinals, thus saving Jurgen Klinsmann’s skin for a few more months. Oh, and Chile thumped Mexico, blanked Colombia and then beat Argentina on penalties at a sold-out MetLife Stadium to be crowned champion of the Americas.
But those are details (sorry Chile). The tournament will be remembered for the agony Messi endured that night in New Jersey. He did his best to drag Argentina to victory. He often ventured alone into Chilean territory, where he was blunted by multiple defenders with no other real concerns. Argentina outshot Chile, 18-4, but lacked precision in the attacking third—like they did at the 2015 Copa América final and the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil. Then Messi and Lucas Biglia missed their penalties, and the country named for Silver would settle for silver once again. This time, during the Copa’s interminable awards ceremony, Messi cried or sat alone on the Argentina bench. Three defeats in international finals in three years, and a fourth overall, was too much to bear.
He announced his international retirement in the mixed zone following the game, telling reporters that, “The national team is not for me. It’s what I feel right now. It’s a great sadness that it happened to me again …. It’s for the good of everybody. It’s not enough to just get to the final and not win.”
Chile’s triumph, its second straight, was forgotten. Messi’s despair was the story. Retirement didn’t take, of course, and he’ll give it another try in Russia (assuming Argentina gathers itself and qualifies). He clearly cares. He’s got more depth than Maradona might think. But thanks to this summer, there’s also more depth to his frustration and that one, infuriating hole on his resume.