EAST RUTHERFORD, United States, June 27, (AFP): Lionel Messi sensationally announced his retirement from international football here Sunday after Argentina crashed to defeat against Chile in the Copa America Centenario final.
A crestfallen Messi confirmed his decision to quit after yet another agonizing near-miss with Argentina, who have now lost three major tournament finals in a row since 2014.
“It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but its over with the Argentina team,” said Messi, who was also on the losing side in the final of the 2007 Copa America.
“I’ve done all I can, I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion,” the 29-year-old five-time world footballer of the year added.
Messi had earlier been left distraught after missing Argentina’s opening penalty in the shoot-out at MetLife Stadium after the two teams had finished extra-time deadlocked at 0-0.
Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero had got the shoot-out off to a dream start by saving Chile’s opening spot-kick but Messi then surrendered the initiative by blazing wildly over the bar.
A further miss by Lucas Biglia put Chile in the box seat and they duly held their nerve to win 4-2.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino had given no inkling of Messi’s decision in a post-match press conference but sympathized with his captain.
“He feels the way any football player must feel when he gets to a final and then loses,” Martino said. “Certainly to lose again is too painful to act any differently.”
It was a carbon copy of last year’s Copa America final, also won by Chile on penalties after a goalless draw.
“The final result is all that counts and the final result is Chile winning by penalties so there’s not much to analyze,” Martino said. “We lost the game and we left empty-handed.”
Jubilant Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi meanwhile said he hoped his side would continue to improve after clinching back-to-back Copa America crowns.
“We’re going to enjoy this,” said Pizzi, an Argentine.
“I hope the team will continue growing and evolving. This group of players has been really pushing the ceiling of its abilities — let’s hope we continue to keep pushing ourselves to achieve more.”
As well as sending Messi into retirement, the defeat ensured Argentina’s 23-year wait for a major title continued.
The final had gone to penalties after finishing level at 0-0 after 120 minutes.
Both sides were reduced to 10 men in the first half as Brazilian referee Heber Lopes struggled to get a grip on an ill-tempered contest played in front of a crowd of 82,026.
The first yellow card of the match came in the 16th minute when Marcelo Diaz brought down Messi with a cynical hack across the thighs as the Barcelona star advanced on the Chilean goal.
Argentina should have taken the lead on 21 minutes when a defensive blunder from Gary Medel, miscontrolling a back pass, allowed Gonzalo Higuain to go clean through on goal. Higuain had time and space but opted to lift his shot over the advancing Claudio Bravo and it rolled wide of the post in a huge let-off for Chile.
It was a nightmarish case of deja vu for Higuain, who missed potentially match winning chances in both the 2014 World Cup final and last year’s Copa America.
Seven minutes later Chile were left rocking when Messi burst forward only to be bodychecked blatantly by Diaz, who collected a second yellow to see red.
It ought to have been a warning to both sides but the spiteful tone continued for the remainder of the half, with Javier Mascherano and Arturo Vidal next into the book in the 37th minute.
The next flare-up came on 40 minutes when Messi darted into the box at high speed and tumbled over following a collision with Jose Pedro Fuenzalida.
Chile’s players surrounded Lopes demanding a yellow card for a dive and Messi was duly booked.
Two minutes from half-time and Lopes was reaching for a red card, this time sending off Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo for a reckless tackle on Vidal.
The cards continued in a fractious start to the second half, Jean Beausejour booked for hacking at Gabriel Mercado.
A cynical foul on Messi by Charles Aranguiz resulted in another yellow card.
Chile striker Eduardo Vargas went close on the 80th minute, thumping a fierce low shot that Romero did well to block at his near post.
Sergio Aguero had a chance to steal victory in the 84th minute when he was worked into space on the right of the box but he blazed his shot high and wide.