Lionel Messi’s retirement from international football may have come as a shock to his many admirers but in hindsight there were plenty of clues that the Argentina superstar might call time on his career with the ‘Albiceleste’ sooner rather than later.
The 29-year-old five-time Fifa world footballer of the year was left devastated on Sunday after suffering yet another traumatic near-miss with Argentina in the Copa America Centenario -- his fourth defeat in a final since 2007.
“For me the national team is over,” Messi said. “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.”
While startling, the suddenness of Messi’s departure -- assuming it is for good -- begins to make sense when the context of his decision is taken into consideration.
For most of the last decade, Messi has shouldered the burden of expectation from Argentinian fans craving a first major tournament success since 1993.
The flipside is that when the disappointments come, he has often been the lightning rod for criticism.
Though the majority of Argentinian fans remain squarely in Messi’s corner, his critics invariably contrast his success with Barcelona with his inability to lead Argentina to international glory.
Messi had shown signs of growing increasingly weary of the criticism following Argentina’s defeat in the 2015 Copa America final, irritated by the suggestion that he was anything other than committed to the national cause.
Feeling the shirt
“I get annoyed when they tell us ‘Put in more effort, you don’t feel the shirt’,” he told Argentine network TyC Sports in December. “We were lucky enough to get to the final of the World Cup and the Copa America and it seems like we didn’t do anything. We got to two finals. We didn’t win, what can you do? We got to the final, we didn’t lose in the last-16,” he said.
“I get annoyed by the people who attack you without thinking. I won’t sing the national anthem on purpose. I don’t need to sing it to feel it. It reaches me, every person feels it in their own way,” added Messi, who once turned down an invitation to play for Spain, where he has lived since his school days after being spotted by Barcelona as a youth prodigy.
Proof of Messi’s commitment to playing for Argentina, if it was needed, can be seen in his gruelling schedule over the past three years. He has played a major tournament during his off-season every summer since 2014.
Last year he played in the Champions League final for Barcelona and a week later was playing in the Copa America in Chile.
This year, he played in the final of Spain’s Copa Del Rey on May 22 and five days later was turning out for Argentina in a meaningless friendly against Honduras in the Argentinian town of San Juan.
For his troubles, he sustained a back injury after a heavy collision with a Honduras player.
Messi then returned to Spain to give evidence in his tax fraud trial before hopping on a plane to California to join up with the Argentina squad at the Copa America Centenario.
He missed the first game in Santa Clara, but sparkled with a 19-minute hat-trick against Panama in the group stage.
Another goal against Venezuela saw him level Gabriel Batistuta’s all-time scoring record, with 54, before he surpassed that mark with a magical free-kick in a 4-0 romp over the United States in the semi-finals.
Yet despite being all smiles on the pitch, off the pitch problems have bothered Messi, with the crisis-ridden Argentina Football Association the subject of his ire.
He was left seething after a flight from Houston to New Jersey was held up, taking to social media to vent his frustration.
“Once again waiting on a plane to leave for our destination,” Messi wrote. “What a disaster the AFA are. My god!”
He was also the subject of more sniping from Argentina legend Diego Maradona “He’s a really good person, but he has no personality,” Maradona said bluntly in Paris. “He lacks (the) character to be a leader.”
Maradona then followed that salvo with a blunt statement that Argentina’s players shouldn’t bother returning to their homeland if they failed to win Sunday’s final.
Until Messi’s declaration in the depths of the MetLife Stadium on Sunday, he had been content to do most of his talking on pitch.
Yet now it seems likely, barring a retirement U-turn, that Messi will never emulate Maradona’s success in leading Argentina to a World Cup title.