The vast majority of lives, in football and elsewhere, end in failure. The poignant farewell, the reminder of the transitory nature of the gloria mundi, are familiar parts of the narrative. But still, there would be something desperately sad, desperately unfulfilling, desperately banal, if Lionel Messi’s international career were to end with a penalty blazed over the bar in East Rutherford.
The MetLife Stadium in New Jersey may be excellently appointed, but it is not one of football's great arenas. The Copa América Centenario may have proved more engaging than many imagined, but it is not one of football's great tournaments – it is not even, Conmebol decided last week, a Copa América. This was not a place for Lionel Messi to say goodbye.
After Sunday’s Copa América final defeat to Chile, he sounded adamant. “My thinking right now and thinking about it in the dressing room, I’m done playing with the national team,” he said, face solemn, barely able to meet the eye of the journalists who surrounded him. “I tried my hardest, it’s been four finals but I was not able to win. I tried everything possible. It’s hurts me more than anyone but it is evident that this is not for me.”
That echoed what he had said before the game, when he had reflected glumly on three lost finals and spoke about changing history. It’s almost as though Messi feels he is cursed, that he is the reason this great generation, the players that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2005 and 2007 and retained Olympic gold in 2008, cannot win a senior trophy.
But the sense of disappointment and disillusionment goes further than that. Javier Mascherano has also retired, while Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín are considering their futures. Agüero missed two decent chances in the game. Higuaín wasted one, to go with the good chances he missed in last year's Copa América final and the World Cup final the year before. Is it fair to blame the Napoli striker? Not really, but it's hard to not reflect that, for all the talk of Argentina's 1986 World Cup-winners being Diego Maradona plus 10 others, Messi's international record might look rather better if he'd had a centre-forward of the calibre of Jorge Valdano to play alongside.
Perhaps Messi will, in time, change his mind. He is angry at the moment with the Argentinian Football Association, calling it a “disaster” in an Instagram post last week. He subsequently promised to reveal exactly what he meant after the final. But a new president – the AFA is currently in the hands of a Fifa normalisation committee as it tries to sort out a tie in last year’s presidential elections, when one more vote was cast than the number of delegates present – perhaps could tempt him back. He is only 29.
Perhaps there will be a glorious finale at the Luzhniki Stadium in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, or a slightly less glorious one at the Maracanã (or wherever Brazil chooses to hold the Copa América final) in 2019. Maradona, after all, had long periods away from the national side. That’s something that often seems to be forgotten when Messi’s commitment to the national side is called into question, a quibble that has come to seem increasingly bizarre.
He clearly cares. Just because he doesn't belt out the anthem like Gianluigi Buffon doesn't change that. He may have moved to Spain when he was 11, but he is very much Argentinian: his accent remains Rosarino, his favourite actor is Ricardo Darin and his favourite food is his mother's milanesas with tomato and cheese. His devastated face as he was handed the player of the tournament award after defeat in the World Cup final in 2014 was confirmation: the individual honour meant nothing to him.
It’s understandable that he should feel weary. He has played in major tournaments in each of the past three (European) summers. It’s fairly clear that he does not find turning out for Argentina much fun. The pressure is always on. He’s always the scapegoat if they lose. Forget his hat-trick against Panama, or his brilliance against the USA, forget the demolition of Paraguay in last year’s semi-final or even the key goals and the superb pass for the winner against Switzerland in the World Cup. He’s a bottler, he never does it in finals, he doesn’t really care … the accusations must grate. The fact is he played very well against Chile, stood up to a fearful kicking … and then took the worst penalty of his life.
The shadow of El Diego hangs for ever over him. Messi has never done what Maradona did in Mexico in 1986. Which is true. But then Messi’s club career eclipses anything Maradona achieved at club level: four Champions Leagues and eight league titles against a Uefa Cup and three league titles. The comparison, of course, is of only limited relevance.
They were very different times – but then they were different too at international level. The World Cup then was the apogee of football; it is not now.
In truth, Messi could have scored half a dozen against Chile on Sunday and it would have made little difference to his reputation. Those who want to criticise could have said it’s only a weird supplementary Copa América and they’d have had some justification. Messi is a great player, one of the greatest of all time: beating Chile wouldn’t have confirmed that and losing doesn’t undermine it.
But the narrative perhaps demands one last glory. The greatest triumphs are those that follow the greatest lows. The true hero must know and overcome adversity, not just ride the gilded escalator to success. Argentina’s hope must be that in Russia in two years there is still one final chapter to be written.