EAST RUTHERFORD (New Jersey) • Lionel Messi sensationally announced his retirement from international football on Sunday after Argentina crashed to a shock defeat by Chile in the Copa America final.
The heartbroken player was distraught after missing a spot kick in a penalty shoot-out, which ended 4-2 in favour of Chile, after the match finished 0-0 after extra time. It was his fourth straight defeat in a major final while representing Argentina.
"For me, the national team is over," the crestfallen 29-year-old told reporters. "I have done all I can, I have been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.
"That is the way I feel right now. It is a huge sadness once again and I missed the penalty that was so important. I tried so hard to be champion with Argentina. But it did not happen. I could not do it."
He has played in three Copa America finals - in 2007, last year and on Sunday - as well as the 2014 World Cup final, and was on the losing side every time. Argentina failed to score in all four matches.
Widely held to be the greatest player of his generation, Messi has won every trophy possible at club level with Spanish giants Barcelona, although his only titles with Argentina were the Under-20 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.
But while his glittering career with Barca has seen him named Fifa World Player of the Year on no fewer than five occasions - a record - he has faced persistent sniping from critics back home for his inability to land a major title in the colours of Argentina.
His failure to match the achievements of Diego Maradona, who single-handedly carried the nation to victory in the 1986 World Cup, has often been held against him.
Maradona himself has often taken potshots at Messi, criticising the Argentina captain on the eve of the tournament for a perceived "lack of personality". "He lacks the character to be a leader," Maradona said on the sidelines of Euro 2016.
He then followed that salvo by saying that Argentina's players should not bother returning to their homeland if they failed to win Sunday's final.
Yet Messi received support on Sunday from Chile's victorious coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who maintained that his fellow Argentinian deserves to be regarded as the best footballer ever.
The player holds the all-time goals record of 312 in La Liga and the single-season record with 50 goals, which he set in the 2011-2012 season with Barcelona.
"I know what it means to value certain numbers and Messi's numbers are unmatched," Pizzi said of Messi's record-breaking career. "I don't think they will ever be matched because it is impossible for a player to find the things that Messi finds."
Messi had injured his back in a friendly against Honduras before the tournament.
He missed the team's opening group game against Chile, but came on as a substitute in a 5-0 hammering of Panama, scoring a hat-trick in 19 minutes. He then equalled Argentina's international scoring record of 54, held by Gabriel Batistuta, in the quarter-finals before setting a new mark with his 55th international goal in the semi-final win over the United States.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS