BUENOS AIRES • Argentina football legend Diego Maradona and the country's President Mauricio Macri have urged Lionel Messi not to quit the national team.
The Barcelona star left the field in tears after missing his spot kick in Sunday's Copa America final shoot-out against Chile. Chile won the shoot-out 4-2 after the teams were tied 0-0 in regulation.
He promptly told reporters that he was quitting, throwing Argentinian football into turmoil ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"He has to stay because he still has playing days ahead of him," Maradona was quoted as saying by the La Nacion newspaper. "He will go to Russia in form to be world champion."
Messi, 29, is widely rated as the best player in the world but Sunday's loss was his fourth - and third straight - defeat in an international final for Argentina.
After an outpouring of disappointment by fans online, Mr Macri joined the calls for the Barcelona star to stay with Argentina.
A FAN'S PLEA
Losing a final is something that happens in sport.
But losing you is the most painful defeat of all.
FEDE RUIZ, Lionel Messi supporter, on the Argentina star's retirement from international football.
"He called him and told him how proud he feels of the national team's performance and asked him not to listen to the criticism," a spokesman for Mr Macri told AFP.
The 1986 World Cup winner Maradona blamed Argentina's recent lack of trophies on the Argentina Football Association (AFA).
He accused the organisation of not supporting Messi and letting him take the fall for Sunday's loss.
"Those who are saying he should quit are doing it so that we won't see what a disaster Argentinian football has become," La Nacion quoted Maradona, 55, as saying.
Messi and the squad landed back in Buenos Aires on Monday evening after the tournament held in the United States.
Television cameras followed their coach but the players avoided making comments to the media.
Ahead of this month's Copa, Maradona himself had accused the Argentina captain of lacking the character to be a leader.
The Barcelona forward has been named Fifa World Player of the Year five times. But he has been haunted by comparisons with Maradona, who led Argentina to that World Cup triumph in 1986.
Maradona and Messi have both proved themselves to be skilful giants on the world football stage despite their diminutive frames of 1.65m and 1.70m respectively.
But, while Maradona reached international heights by lifting the World Cup, Messi's only major international honour has been Olympic gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The star's departure could herald a broader change in the Argentina line-up.
Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero warned that other players could also quit the national side. Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain were among a number of the Copa squad mentioned in media reports to be considering their international futures.
After the final in New Jersey, Messi's typical composure gave way to tears of frustration.
"I've done all I can, I've been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion," he told reporters.
"It's a hard moment for me and the team, and it's difficult to say, but it's over with the Argentina team."
His departure left many fans no longer thinking about the Copa.
"Losing a final is something that happens in sport," wrote one fan, Fede Ruiz, on Twitter.
"But losing you is the most painful defeat of all."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS