For Lionel Messi, retiring is a nonverbal apology
BUENOS AIRES -- It seems like a curse. There just aren't many footballing reasons to explain Argentina's latest failure in the Copa America Centenario final against Chile.
Argentina failed to reach the heights of previous Copa America performances, but what they did do should have been enough to win against an opponent who only contributed toughness and physical stamina to advance to penalties. Argentina neither won nor lost during 120 minutes.
Gerardo Martino's team was the best at the Copa America Centenario, but this fact means little, at least for this generation who long for a lap of honor. The top prize was the sole objective, the only way to settle the debt and wipe the slate clean.
All of this makes Lionel Messi's premature reaction understandable. His promise of retirement means putting an end to a burden he has carried for years, and no amount of genius seems capable of easing that.
Messi was involved in the final. Some might say too much. It was clear that he wanted to take charge of Argentina's destiny on his own. Persistently seeking a heroic dribble, he sought to open gaps in a stubborn defense. On occasion, he succeeded; at other times, he won useful free kicks. But it was not enough. It is never enough when a player takes the place of the team.
Messi, the proud and perhaps unknowing bearer of crushing weight and pressure, took charge of his name and additional stress from the public and journalists to take on the ultimate rematch, the match that would erase what had come before it.
If all the chips were deposited at his feet, in his imagination and in the awe he inspires in opponents, it is logical that he feels responsible for Argentina's failure. On the pitch, he played an excessive role, sometimes even at the expense of the clarity to interpret certain moments of the game.
When the time came to place blame, Messi was also first in line to face the music. He took responsibility and announced his farewell. Perhaps some esoteric thoughts -- those temptations that come to mind when there is no reasonable explanation for what has happened -- made him think that, aside from his unparalleled talent, his presence is somehow ominous. The absence of luck in the form of repeated chances to score goals that never materialize seems to be the result of a spell on the star.
As the days go by and he has time to reflect more calmly, it is likely that Messi will rethink this decision and focus on the 2018 World Cup as his next challenge. Hopefully, he will not insist on squandering this last roll of the dice. It would also be a noble gesture if the public asked Messi to continue once the anger has subsided; Diego Maradona urged that "Messi has to stay in the national team. He will go to Russia in form to be [a] world champion."
If anyone is in any doubt: there will not be anyone better. There is no messiah designed to win tournaments. The idea of winning finals without playing well is a story told by sloppy journalists. Meanwhile, Messi's desire to quit is understandable. Along with sadness, retirement carries with it some form of nonverbal apology -- for being unable to deliver what they have been waiting for after many attempts. But above all, it involves dispelling an obsession and resolving to stop chasing the carrot that cannot be reached.
Alejandro Caravario is a Buenos Aires-based journalist who covers local first-division and national team football for ESPN.com Argentina.