KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Leo Messi says it’s all over. Never again will he pull on the blue and white striped jersey of Argentina. Never again will he grace the World Cup. Never again the Copa America.
Missing a penalty in the shootout which saw Chile defeat the Albeceleste in Sunday’s final of the Copa America centenary anniversary tournament in East Rutherford, New Jersey, was the last straw for the FIFA World Player of the Year. Four national team finals, four defeats. That is not why Messi plays football. He plays to win.
Hence, Adios national team.
For the time being.
Messi’s instant reaction was understandable on a human level. Two years ago he was voted Best Player at the 2014 World Cup but that was no consolation for ending up on the losing side in the final against Germany in Maracana.
Inbetween he has continued to win trophy after cup and title with Barcelona. Seasons in which he maintained his record-breaking goalscoring feats.
This is one 29-year-old footballer for whom finishing on the losing side is a rare experience and not one he ever contemplates. No wonder he was unhappy.
Preparation for the final had been a rough ride. First, back in Spain, he has had to cope with the stress of an interminable tax fraud trial with his father. Then he arrived in the United States for the Copa America with a nagging muscle injury. Not that this prevented him scoring the goals which established him as Argentina’s 55-goal all-time top scorer.
Even when the players were focusing on the final and a repeat meeting with Chile who beat them in the Copa America last year, the camp was thrown into confusion because of events off the pitch.
On Friday world federation FIFA sacked the Argentinian FA president Luis Segura and created an emergency committee to run the AFA; the same day a Buenos Aires judge turned up at the federation offices prepared to shut it down while launching an investigation into fraud and corruption allegations over a TV deal.
FIFA acted in haste to pre-empt intervention by the Argentinian government which would have risked the country’s suspension from international football; similarly Judge Maria Servini de Cubria was persuaded to delay legal action until after the weekend or Messi and Co might not have been permitted to even take to the pitch in the Copa Centenario final.
AFA president Luis Segura, away from it all in New Jersey, denied all knowledge both of being sacked or of having been indicted.
Simultaneously the squad’s flight to New Jersey was delayed by bad weather, something the players were apparently not told. Messi, rarely given to putting his anger and frustration into words, complained via Instagram: “Once again waiting on a plane to leave for our destination. What a disaster the AFA are. My god!”
Then came the game itself, a goalless draw after extra time followed by the disastrous penalty shootout.
All too much for Messi. Perhaps, more to the point, he has been playing for virtually three years non-stop. His summer holiday refreshers were scrapped for the sake of the World Cup in 2014; by the Copa America in 2015; and now by the Copa America Centenario in 2016.
How Messi must envy his Barcelona team-mate Neymar. Brazil wanted Neymar for the Copa Centenario and then for the Olympic Games football tournament in Rio de Janeiro in August. Barcelona put their foot down. He could be released for one but not both. So Brazil and Neymar opted for the Olympics, the one prize they have never won.
Neymar thus headed off on holiday while Messi headed for the Copa Centenario. Yes, Neymar will play the Olympics but only in the time which, otherwise, would have seen him back in pre-season training and friendly matches with Barcelona.
No such happy convenience for Messi.
The other caveat about Messi and Argentina is that, while he was born and brought up in Rosario, he has lived and played in Spain ever since the age of 13. His loyalties are schizophrenic. His family and nationality allegiance may be to Argentina but he is, in a personal context, Spanish.
Messi has won five world player crowns and three golden shoes as the European leagues’ annual leading marksman.
He has celebrated triumph four times in the UEFA Champions League and three times in the Club World Cup as well as eight Spanish league title and four domestic cups (plus three European Supercups and six Spanish Supercups). He holds records for most goals scored in the Spanish league, most in a single season (50), a calendar year (91), in all competitions in a single season (73), a Champions League match (five) and in the most Champions League seasons (five).
All with Barcelona, his only professional club. His home for most of his life.
So why put up with all the punishment in a losing cause for a country whose fans have admired him but never loved him, never embraced him as truly one of their own?
No reason. Hence the retirement.
But . . . Messi is a great sports competitor, up there with Novak Djokovic and Usain Bolt. He will always want to win as much as he can, wherever he can, whenever he can.
So do not bet against him leading Argentina into the finals of the World Cup in Russia in 2018. One last competitive hurrah? How could he resist?
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