The day Messi took Argentina off his shoulders

At the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey; Lionel Messi stepped up to take a penalty in the Copa America final against defending champions Chile.

First in line for the shootout, Messi’s shot goes over the bar and Argentina go on to lose the shootout and once again Lionel Messi loses another international tournament. Shortly after, he announced his retirement from international football saying, “For me the national team is over. I’ve done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion.”

He’s a five-time Balon d’Or winner, four-time champions league winner, eight-time La Liga winner, all-time leading goal scorer for his country with 55 goals, but with all of these achievements in his career – Lionel Messi has not been able to bring silverware to his beloved country of Argentina.

From the day he began playing football professionally, Messi has always had the weight of a whole nation on his shoulders, being known as the man to bring the glory days back to the people of Argentina. Like Gabriel Batistuta before him, Maradona praised Batigol as “the best striker I have ever seen play the game!” A man who terrorised defences in the 90s, Batistuta is truly one of the great Argentinian footballers. Although with Messi, it’s a completely different scenario.

For as long as many can remember, Messi has often been regarded as the heir to Maradona’s throne. The same Maradona that carried a whole nation’s expectations on his shoulders. The same Maradona who went on bring hope and joy to a nation that didn’t have much to be positive about. Despite all the weight, Maradona was able to win a World Cup in somewhat controversial fashion in 1986.

Of course Messi’s reign of superiority comes in a different generation. Football has changed dramatically has changed since Maradona’s reign. New rules, new footwear, new technology and that’s only a minuscule amount of changes. With this, one thing that hasn’t changed is the pressure. For a long time, Messi has had to deal with the pressure of carrying the nation on his shoulders. A nation like Argentina where football is above everything in every sense of life.

With the divide of who is the better between the great rivals of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, those who prefer the latter feel that the former’s decision to retire after simply missing a penalty shot has fueled their fire into believing that Messi isn’t the best in the world as to what people say. For Portugal, Ronaldo hasn’t had the same pressure Messi has had for Argentina. The expectations put on Ronaldo are exceptionally low, as Portugal doesn’t have the same amount of talent Argentina has at their disposal.

Names like Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain all come to mind when the discussion of Messi’s Argentinian counterparts are brought into question. All players who have performed to an elite level for the clubs and winning accolades as they come. In the aftermath of the defeat to Chile, the core group of Argentina’s key players also considered retirement according to reports. If true, along with Messi – the likes of Mascherano, Aguero, Lavezzi, Higuain, Biglia and Di Maria will no longer wear the colours of the Albiceleste. It goes to show how much success meant to the players.

For too long they’ve been destined for greatness and billed as the side that would go on to be the favourites at major tournaments. After four losses in major tournament finals including a World Cup final loss, its clear Messi doesn’t think he is the man to lead his nation to glory. To an extent, he might feel that he responsible for the loss by missing that first penalty. A penalty that soared away with the hopes and dreams of a nation.

With such turmoil in just 24 hours, it’s fair to say that it was a dark day for not only the Argentinian FA but for the Argentinian people. They had hoped for the day that they would see their hero lift the a major tournament trophy like his predecessor Diego Maradona did all those years back but in Lionel’s case – it wasn’t meant to be.

Imagery by Imad Bolotok / asilomar.co

Ben Owusu