Lionel Messi couldn’t believe it. Frankly, few could. Against the US four days ago, his divine left foot had made the ball overcome a wall of defenders and curl and dip past a diving goalkeeper to magically settle in the top left corner of the goal. It wasn’t as much a free kick from 25 yards, but a laser-guided missile. On Sunday night, in the penalty shootout of the Copa America final against Chile, he hit it over from less than half that distance with nothing but the thick New Jersey air to beat. The resultant 4-2 loss meant Argentina’s title drought, dating back to 1993, would continue. It also ensured that Messi, one of the most decorated club footballers of all time, wouldn’t get that one trophy with the national team he so covets. It will remain that way as Messi, later, announced his retirement from international football.
His teammates have said it was a heat-of-the-moment decision and he would reconsider. Messi’s unhappiness with the Argentine federation, which is teetering on the brink of collapse, may also have influenced his decision. Therefore, a return to sky blue-and-white, with the World Cup just two years away, can’t be implausible. Nevertheless, if Sunday was his final appearance for Albiceleste, what legacy does he leave behind? It’s easy to brand him as an underachiever, given his 28-0 club vs country record at the senior level. But the picture is more complex. For one, modern-day football has very limited scope for independent, individual flair. Two, what that number doesn’t show is both as a player and a captain, Messi has been instrumental in Argentina making it to three major finals in the last two years, including the 2014 World Cup.
Clearly, the margin between and an underachiever and a G.O.A.T is very, very slim. It, therefore, depends on how you want to remember Messi: Through his last miss or his last hit, that free kick.