NEW DELHI: Lionel Messi is prone to surprising his audience. It is usually an audacious flick or a blistering run through the opposition’s defence that leaves spectators gaping at the marvel that the Argentine legend is. No wonder then as the Argentine captain stepped up to take the first penalty for his side in the final of this year’s Copa America against Chile, fans were expecting him to give his side the lead after Arturo Vidal had seen his penalty saved. But Messi inexplicably skied his attempt over the crossbar and left the fans aghast, once again.

The miss proved fatal as Argentina went on to lose the penalty shootout 4-2, in what was a repeat of last year’s Copa America final that had also seen Chile beat Argentina on penalties. The anguish of the loss proved too much for Messi who announced soon after that he was retiring from international football. The announcement comes after Argentina lost three finals, including the World Cup final to Germany in 2014, in as many years.

“It is difficult, the time is hard for any analysis. In the dressing room I thought the national team was over for me, it is not for me,” Messi said, as per the team’s official twitter handle. The Barcelona star further told Argentine sports network TyC “I think it's best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The national team is over for me, it's a done decision. It's very difficult, but the decision has been made. I won't try it any longer and on this there will be no going back. It is four finals that I've had to lose with the national team, the third in a row, we tried it and we searched for it and it happened,” Messi said. “It hurts me like nobody else, I leave without being able to win a title.”

At 29, Messi is at the peak of his career and would have surely been a potent force for Argentina at the World Cup in Russia in two years time. Nonetheless, Messi’s relationship with the national team has always been thorny. He has been widely criticized for failing to replicate his stupendous club form with Barcelona on to the international stage. Messi’s only competitive international win with Argentina is the Olympic gold medal that he won at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Messi had come under stern scrutiny by former Argentine legend Diego Maradona right before the Copa America as he said “He's a really good person, but he has no personality. He lacks [the] character to be a leader” at a public event in Paris. The jibe seemed to not rub off on Messi as he scored 5 goals during the Copa America, second highest in the tournament, despite being confined to second half cameos in the first half of the tournament. He also went on to become the record goal-scorer for Argentina breaking a record that had been held by Gabriel Batistuta previously.

His failure to win a major international title with Argentina had long been argued as one of the reasons why he was not seen in the same league as Maradona or Pele, both of whom had won world cup titles with their national teams. That reasoning aside, Messi has undoubtedly been the biggest star of the sport in the last decade, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. He is the only player in history to win five FIFA Ballons d’Or awards and three European Golden Shoes. This acrimonious falling out with the national team is surely going to taint his legacy and give further fodder to critics that have always been apprehensive about his performances with the national team.

The decision has already had severe consequences for Argentina as Messi’s Barcelona teammate Javier Mascherano and Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero have both followed Messi and announced their respective retirements from international football. The three have formed a core for the national side in recent years and their sudden departure could complicate things for Argentina as it looks to successfully navigate the qualification round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

It remains to be seen now whether the Argentine Football Association strives to convince the stars to call off or delay the retirement announcement for the national side’s stake. Social media was awash with fans desperate to know how the start could be made to reverse his decision as they were taken aback by the decision. Naturally, “Messi” has been the top trending item on Twitter worldwide in the last few hours while fans have also come with the innocuous term “Mexit” to symbolize the forward’s departure.

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