Lionel Messi was emotional after yet another finals defeat last night, when he missed a penalty kick and Argentina lost to Chile 4-3 on penalty kicks in the Copa America Centenario. It marks the third straight summer when Argentina has come up just short, after the 2014 World Cup Final against Germany, and last year’s Copa America defeat, also on penalty kicks, to the same Chilean team.
“In the locker room, I thought that the national team was finished for me, that it’s not for me,” Messi said. “It’s what I feel right now. It’s a great sadness that it happened to me, that I missed penalty kick that was very important. It’s for the good of everybody. It’s not enough to just get to the final and not win.”
“It’s incredible, the fact that we can’t win it,” Messi added. “It’s happened to us again, and by penalty kicks. It’s our third consecutive final. We tried, and it wasn’t for us.”
And so today, there is much talk about Messi retiring from Argentina. If he actually follows through on it, it would be just a few days after his 29th birthday. It comes at the end of another long season, and after an emotional defeat in which he failed at a key moment. He is, after all, human, and being overcome and distraught and not wanting to go through this again would be natural.
He will also, no doubt, be at the center of much gnashing and hot-taking today in Argentina as the national team still hasn’t won a major tournament since he began playing. Diego Maradona will no doubt be insufferable.
Maybe he does need some time off from the national team. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. “Messi is a Spaniard,” one Argentinian journalist wrote before yesterday. “Let him stay in Spain. Us Argentines don’t want him and don’t need him.” That is a foolish proposition, but maybe they need to feel life without him for a while.
Argentina returns to World Cup Qualifying in CONMEBOL on September 1st, with a home match against Uruguay. The South Americans are currently one-third of the way through the World Cup Qualifying schedule, which has four teams advancing through, and the 5th-place finisher facing the Oceania champion for a final spot (in which they would be a heavy favorite). Argentina is currently in 3rd place, just ahead of Chile, Colombia, and Brazil.
There are six matches between September and mid-November, then another break. If Messi was retired during those matches, it might put Argentina in a precarious position. The two November matches could be huge ones: at Brazil and against Colombia.
Maybe Lionel Messi will actually retire. I doubt it is permanent and that he walks away before his 30th birthday. I’ll believe it when he is not on the pitch for the closing qualifying games next year, and in Russia in 2018. He might not be there when the team takes the field again in September, though. The pain and the criticism in his home country may be too fresh.