Lionel Messi will feel a great weight lifted from his shoulders now that he has given up on leading Argentina to a major trophy but the shadow of the man who did manage it – Diego Maradona – will be cast longer than ever over his legacy this morning.
Maradona dropped a grenade into Argentina’s tournament hopes two weeks back when apparently off microphone he told Pele, no less, that he thought Messi did not have the personality to be a leader.
The microphones at the promotional event were on, conspiracy theorists believe Maradona knew that. Was it an attempt to motivate Messi? Or was it another dig in the ribs from one legend to another? The old master is now safe in the knowledge that Messi will never match him on the international stage.
Messi did his best to lead his country to a Copa America win. He even showed some uncharacteristic anger by tweeting his disgust at the Argentine Football Association’s (AFA) inability to organise the team’s travel plans last week, tweeting: ‘Once again waiting for a plane so we can take off. What a disaster the AFA are.’
It was a show of strength but it could still not be turned into tournament success.
‘For many people the essence of Argentine football contains kilos of Maradona and grams of Messi’ wrote Sebastian Fest in La Nacion recently.
Fest, the author of ‘The Messi Mystery’ was defending the Barcelona No 10 against Maradona’s preposterous suggestion he had no substance. But he was also stating a fact that for the national side’s most passionate supporters – there is still only one God and his name is Diego not Lionel.
Messi’s patriotism, as much as his leadership, has always been questioned. That is what comes from never having been idolised as a Boca, River or Independiente player before heading to Europe. No matter that despite the fact that he moved to Catalonia aged 13 he turned down Spain’s advances to make him one of theirs.
Vicente del Bosque admitted last year: ‘There was an attempt to do that (persude Messi to switch allegiances) but he decided to stick with the country of his birth; he remained steadfast.’
It’s four finals already, it’s not for me. I worked so hard for it. It was the thing I wanted more than anything. But it just wasn’t to be.
Messi also showed his commitment by travelling 30,000 kilometres in a few days so he could train with Argentina ahead of the Copa America, then appear before a Spanish court where he faced tax evasion charges and return to be with his team-mates for the tournament.
But none of that is enough to convince so many in his homeland that playing for his country means as much to him, as it does to a Boca hero such as Carlos Tevez or a former River player such as Gonzalo Higuain.
Had he lifted silverware everything would have changed but the silverware has eluded him.
‘It’s four finals already, it’s not for me,’ Messi said as he announced his international retirement on Sunday. ‘I worked so hard for it. It was the thing I wanted more than anything. But it just wasn’t to be.’
He won gold with Argentina in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Under 20 World Cup in 2005 all of which seemed to hail the dawn of a glorious future for Argentina. But he has been a beaten finalist four times since.
He was a runner-up in the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 and in the 2014 World Cup.
Sunday’s final was his third failure at the final hurdle of an international tournament in as many years and the emotion was too much as, through tears, he told the world he was quitting after the final whistle.
Team-mate Sergio Romero hoped there was some room for reconsideration.
‘I think he said it because he was emotional,’ he said.
And it is true that Messi has been on the brink before but with team-mate and close friend Javier Mascherano also considering his international future this may be the point of no return.
He walks away as his country’s all-time top scorer after moving on to 55 goals in the semi-final success over USA and going past Gabriel Batistuta.

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