Oh, Messi, a miss again!

The inability to inspire his nation to victory in major tournaments will remain a blot in Lionel Messi’s glorious career that has seen 8 La Liga, 4 Copa del Rey, 6 SuperCopa, 4 Champions League, 3 UEFA Super Cup and 3 FIFA Club World Cup titles in the 12 seasons he has been with the Catalan club, Barcelona.

Lionel Messi is devastated after Argentina's 4-2 defeat to Chile in the penalty shootout of the COPA America Centenary Championship final in East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA. The Argentine skipper, who missed his team's first shot from the spot, later announced his retirement from international football.   -  AP

The defeat of Argentina, led by Lionel Messi, is the top news in the South American nation. 'Born to be second' is what the front page headline says, referring to Messi.   -  AP

Lionel Messi’s wait for a major silverware in Argentine colours has now become lifelong. The La Albiceleste captain saw his team crash in a final for the third year in succession. Messi and Lucas Biglia missed their shots in the shootout, as Argentina lost the COPA final against Chile for the second time running.

Soon after, a distraught Messi announced his retirement from international football, bringing to an end his fractious relationship with the Argentine fans.

“I tried so hard to be (a) champion with Argentina. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The choice for me is over, it is a decision,” the skipper said.

The inability to inspire his nation to victory in major tournaments will remain a blot in Messi’s glorious career that has seen 8 La Liga, 4 Copa del Rey, 6 SuperCopa, 4 Champions League, 3 UEFA Super Cup and 3 FIFA Club World Cup titles in the 12 seasons he has been with the Catalan club, Barcelona.

 

He, however, bows out of international football as Argentina’s highest goal-scorer with 55 strikes, one more than Gabriel ‘Batigol’ Batistuta and 21 more than the legendary Diego Maradona, to whom Messi has always been compared.

El Diego, ever a polarising figure, remains much adored in the South American nation. People relate to his meteoric rise from Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the southern periphery of Buenos Aires, to the riches of World football. Maradona, very much a product of a flawed Argentine system, honed his skills during his early years with Argentinos Juniors (1976-81).

Diego, the footballer, developed a cult following. He personified the Latin American spirit of joy and adventure — El 10 was a master dribbler, daring his opponents and the world with his trickery, mischief and innovation. His game provided an outlet to a country trudging under the thuggery of the junta rule of President Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-81), who assumed power after a coup d’etat.

Jimmy Burns, an award winning journalist and author, in his biography of the Argentine legend, ‘The Hand of God: The Story of Diego Maradona’, writes: “As the footballing icon of a football-mad nation, Maradona had long had political connections at the top level… in 1979, Maradona led his country to the World Youth Championship in Tokyo, an event that was quickly exploited by the junta to divert popular attention from its bloody human rights record.”

His stock amongst his folks rose further after he led Argentina to victory in the 1986 Mexico World Cup. The victory restored national pride to a country still smarting under the humiliation of the Falkland fiasco, and Maradona, who was committed to his team and played through the pain barrier, shouldering the responsibility of his colleagues, became the captain of a whole nation.

In contrast, Messi, also born in the humble surroundings of Rosario, Santa Fe, in central Argentina, scored more than 500 goals during his six-year stint with Newell’s Old Boys youth team. He, however, completed his football education in far away Catalunya after Barcelona had whisked him away in 2001, promising to pay for his growth hormone deficiency treatment and helping his family relocate to an apartment near the famous Nou Camp.

Messi grew up in the fabled La Masia stable, Barcelona’s youth academy, with the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique as team-mates. Playing in a structured regime, set up by the late Dutch legend, Johan Cruyff, Messi seamlessly progressed through age-group football, making his competitive debut for the first team on October 16, 2004 against Espanyol. He was 17.

A citizen of Spain and Argentina, Messi spurned advances from the Spanish FA, making his youth debut for the country of his birth in June 2004. He helped Argentina win the FIFA Youth World Cup in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal in 2008, but his stay with the senior national side has always been fraught with criticism.

The Argentine public, always at loggerheads over their fractured club loyalties, never saw Messi as their own. And despite the comparison with Maradona, they failed to see even a shadow of the omnipresent El Diego in Messi. Maradona was their flawed genius, who achieved football greatness despite his fallibility and tumultuous lifestyle, while a very private Messi, living far off, failed to build that connection.

Messi’s role in the Argentine setup has never been definite — he has played in a variety of positions. But when playing for Barcelona, his game is almost telepathic in nature, thanks to the familiar playing patterns and familiar players. However, in the national colours, devoid of that comfort, Messi often failed to provide the thrust when it mattered. Perhaps you could put it down to the pressure of living up to the Diego legacy.

The 4-2 shootout defeat prolongs Argentina’s 23-year trophy-less run and Messi’s own failure now extends to four finals — the 2014 World Cup and the COPA America in 2007, 2015 and 2016.

Messi’s game, defined by a low centre of gravity, short bursts of acceleration and agile feet, makes him an absolute delight to watch, earning him legions of fans worldwide. He is a global icon, but not in Argentina.

“Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they’ll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a football player to do what Messi has done,” the Chile coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi, who is an Argentinean, said after the final. “My generation can’t compare him to Maradona, that’s for my generation, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer. But I think (Messi is) the best player today here in the United States.”

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