The Argentina No. 10 may still go down as the finest player in history but there can surely be no denying that three final defeats in as many years is a significant disappointment
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Lionel Messi may well go down as the greatest player of all time, if he is not regarded as such already, but there is no doubt that calling time on his Argentina career an hour after losing his third final in three years can only be regarded as a stain on his legacy.
Not so much the act of retiring itself – and he may yet go back on the decision in the cold light of day – but the fact that he could not inspire his team-mates to victory in three attempts. It may sound like unreasonable expectation but we are talking about the pantheon of greats, of World Cup winners like Diego Maradona and Pele. This is the standard that Messi has set himself.
Of course, defeat here in New Jersey, or those in the past two years, cannot be pinned squarely on his shoulders, just as all of Argentina’s victories cannot be put down to the magical No. 10.
But to miss a penalty in the shootout defeat to Chile, having failed to recreate his fine form this summer over 120 minutes, is no doubt a major blot on a usually exquisitely kept copybook.
Stepping up to take his country’s first spot kick, after Arturo Vidal had already missed Chile’s opener, the Barcelona legend had an opportunity to give his side a decisive lead, both on the scoreboard and in the minds of the other 21 men on the pitch. But he blazed the ball high over the crossbar and into the stands. If Argentina was to win from here, the team would have to do it, for once and no matter how implausibly, despite Messi. They could not. Lucas Biglia’s effort was saved by Claudio Bravo, leaving Francisco Silva to rattle home the winner in repeat scenes of last year’s final.
It condemned Argentina to utter desolation. The players collapsed to the floor, almost as one. Messi just about managed to keep his emotions in check in 2014 and 2015 but could not here. He burst into tears. He said after the match that his decision to retire had already been made. Perhaps he knew right there and then.
Can any sportsman, amateur or professional, consider such relentless heartache? Losing three finals in as many years has never been done. This is an historic tragedy for Argentina, whose 23-year wait for a major honor goes on. This golden generation has come so close, but has failed each time. It appears Messi will now never win a title with his country.
Once again Argentina can look back and wonder where they would be if Gonzalo Higuain could finish his chances in a major final. Two years ago in Brazil he hooked a gilt-edged chance wide of the post in a tight game that Germany would go on to win in extra-time. Last year he fired into the side netting from a narrowing angle in the Copa final against Chile, and then missed his penalty in the shootout. Here, he was lamentable again. Set through on goal after Gary Medel switched off, the Napoli striker took forever to decide what to do and then sent a tame chip wide of the post.
That was by far the best chance of the match. Had he scored just one of these efforts in the last three years, Messi may have already sewn up the debate about his legacy, and where he stands compared to Maradona and Pele. But once again the supporting cast let him down.
His close friend, Sergio Aguero, who replaced the disappointing Higuain, would then uncharacteristically lash a great opportunity over the bar himself. It was a night for cool heads but few were up to the task. Indeed, two saw red in a first half dominated by elaborate referee Heber Lopes, a Brazilian, who booked Messi and two others, gave Alexis Sanchez an absolute dressing down and even blew the halftime whistle with enthusiastic jolts of the neck muscles. Thankfully he toned it down after the break. Not that the game opened up too much.