It might have been merely frustration: Three straight years of making international finals, three straight finals losses in extra time or on penalties. Or it might have been the last night of Argentina as we know it.
After falling to Chile on PKs in the Copa America final for the second year in a row, Argentina’s biggest star and the world’s greatest soccer player said he’s done with the national team.
“It’s incredible, the fact that we can’t win it,” Lionel Messi told reporters. “It happened to us again, and by penalty kicks. It’s the third consecutive final. We tried. We tried and it wasn’t for us. It’s difficult in this moment to do any sort of analysis. In the locker room, I thought that the national team is not for me. It’s what I feel right now. It’s a great sadness that it happened to me again, the fact that I missed a 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.
“I was thinking in the locker room that this is it for me in terms of the national team. It has been four finals [including the 2007 Copa América]. It’s not for me. I tried to find [a title]. It’s what I wanted most. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it, but I think that’s it.”
Messi was just the first domino to fall. In the ensuing hours, reports emerged tying just about every player of quality to early international retirement. It’s hard to keep track of them all at this point, but ESPN was told that Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero, and Lucas Biglia are planning to quit the national team. Angel Di Maria, Gonazlo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Ever Banega could follow.
How did it all go so wrong? As you might guess, the problems here run much deeper than results. The Argentine FA is, to put it mildly, a nightmare. (“Que desastre,” as Messi put it on Friday.)
The AFA’s corruption is so endemic, it outlived its architect. Julio Grondona died in 2014 after 35 years with unquestioned power, and he left behind a mess. Prosecutors have alleged that money meant for the clubs has disappeared into the pockets of executives and politicians. Grondona’s successor, AFA president Luis Segura, was indicted last week along with six other executives and three former presidential cabinet heads. National team players have long complained of being constantly sent around the world for matches to put money in the FA’s coffers. No one knows what next season’s Primera División will look like, or if it will even exist amid a push for a new “Superliga.” Last December’s presidential election ended in a farce, when 75 voters somehow produced a 38-38 tie.
Things have gotten so bad that on Friday FIFA stepped in to seize control of the AFA.
This, then, is the backdrop for Messi’s shocking pronouncement, as much or more so than the pure on-field frustration of again coming so close yet failing to win Argentina’s first major trophy since 1993. For that reason, it’s possible to read these retirement hints as threats—as a potential power play on the part of Argentina’s golden generation. FA reform now, or we walk.
Messi will be 30 years old at the start of the next World Cup, and it is hard to imagine him not being there. But will the prospect be enough for Argentina to get its shit straight?