"For me, the national team is over," Lionel Messi said in 2016. He’d just missed a penalty in the Copa America final as Argentina lost to Chile for the second consecutive year. From 2014 to 2016, La Albiceleste lost three finals, including the painful World Cup defeat to Germany in Brazil.
"I've done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion."
It felt definitive for Messi. For Argentina, he was a kid who went to Europe as a 13-year-old and despite all his magnificence for Barcelona, couldn’t get his country over the line. For many Argentines, he was seen as a European footballer - and not one of their own. There was a sense of frustration that what they saw him do in La Liga didn't translate to the sky blue and white stripes.
The comparisons to Diego Maradona didn’t help. For many, he could never be mentioned alongside Maradona until he brought silverware home for his country. Despite coming close on so many occasions, it looked as though Messi simply wouldn’t produce as his country desperately wanted him to.
Yet they never hated him. He’d proudly represented them and came so close to winning multiple trophies, but it looked like the end of the road. His retirement announcement in Argentina was met with the same reaction Britain had to Tesco raising their meal deal price to £3.40. Howls of anguish. A nation begged him to change his mind. Train stations in Argentina posted messages willing him to return - as did a certain Lionel Scaloni on Twitter.
Messi and Argentina at major international competitions:
2007 - runners-up - lost 3-0 to Brazil
2011 - quarter-final - lost to Uruguay on pens
2015 - runners-up - lost to Chile on pens
2016 - runners-up - lost to Chile on pens
2019 - semi-final - lost 2-0 to Brazil
2021 - champions - beat Brazil 1-0 in final win
2006 - quarter-finals - lost on pens to Germany (Messi left on bench)
2010 - quarter-finals - lost 4-0 to Germany
2014 - runners-up - lost 1-0 to Germany in extra-time
2018 - last 16 - lost 4-3 to France
2022 - champions - beat France on pens in final
What a moment as Argentina welcomes back its World Cup winners.
It worked. Thankfully for Argentina, that situation now feels a world away. With 99 international goals to his name, one Copa America, one Finalissima and one World Cup - his next goal will bring up a century of goals for his country and cap off a remarkable few years.
The faux retirement actually sparked the Argentine FA into action. They realised they had to put Messi at the heart of their team and employed managers who knew they could get the best out of him. Instead of playing for the unhinged Maradona, Messi found a home under Scaloni once Jorge Sampoauli had left, and his former teammate, who has been there throughout his international career, knew exactly how to make him and Argentina tick. The success came as Messi found form, while Angel di Maria must take huge credit for his role in each final.
He scored the only goal of the game as Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 in the 2021 Copa America final. This was the trophy that got the monkey off Messi's back, and as he collapsed to the ground in celebration, the weight of the world - and his nation - had lifted from his shoulders. His teammates were putting everything into the cause, not just for their country, but for Messi himself, who was seemingly running out of time to secure his Argentinian legacy.
That was the crucial one to get the ball rolling and from there, Argentina did not look back. The Finalissimia performance against Italy at Wembley was outstanding as Di Maria scored again in a 3-0 win and then, Messi became immortal in Qatar. Again, his teammates put themselves on the line for him and when it mattered most - he produced. That goal against Mexico when Argentina were on the brink of elimination in the group stage. That remarkable run that left Josko Gvardiol in knots in the semi-final. Two goals in the final.
The celebrations and connection between him and the fans that took over Qatar was clear for all to see. The tears on his face when he returned home to show his country the trophy completed the perfect circle. From inconsolable tears of sadness in 2016, to tears of joy in 2023 - Lionel Messi has completed the most unlikely international turnaround.