Lionel Messi retiring from international football could be just the boost Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal needed in their quest for a first-ever senior trophy at Euro 2016. It’s no secret that the individual rivalry motivates Ronaldo; indeed fans here in France and all over the world have taunted the three-time Ballon d’Or winner with chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi” in full knowledge that it rankles. Messi departs the Argentina scene without having won a senior title and now Ronaldo knows he has a chance to do something his great adversary never will – lead his nation to glory.
Messi could never replace Diego Maradona in the hearts of Argentines and could only have done one thing to equal him – win the World Cup. Whatever the Champions Leagues, whatever the Ballons d’Or, only the sight of Messi holding aloft the World Cup trophy would have convinced Argentina to give their love to Messi like they had to Maradona. Argentina recognises that Messi is the greatest player in the world - and is proud of that fact – but the feeling persists that he is not truly theirs and - for the national team - his heart was just not in it.
“The national team is over for me,” he said after missing a penalty in the Copa Centenario shootout defeat to Chile. “That’s four finals (lost), it's not for me. The decision is made, I think." Maradona is the boy from the Barrio made good; Messi grew up in Barcelona. There is a widespread sensation that Messi reserves his best for Barca. It cannot now be disputed that he failed to match his international output to his club output. Sure, he ended up breaking Gabriel Batistuta’s goal scoring record but it took him many, many more caps to do it.
Messi’s international career was a disappointment – losing four senior finals – and now he’s quit. He faced unfamiliar criticism when playing for Argentina – judged like anyone else – and that was totally alien to a player who knows nothing but adoration at his club. He endured barren scoreless streaks – two and a half years long at one point – and had to be talked out of retiring from the national side at least once before. He was booed, jeered and regarded by the supporters as “the Catalan” during the 2011 Copa America when Argentina – collectively – and Messi – individually – came up short again.
The appointment of Alejandro Sabella brought the best football of Messi’s international career but he had to indulge him to get it. A conversation with Pep Guardiola – Messi’s club manager at the time – meant Messi would be captain and would play in the position he decided himself was best. Argentina were rewarded with their run to the 2014 World Cup final. Messi started that tournament like a man fulfilling destiny. He scored big, important goals in the group stage and there was a strong will for him to exorcise Maradona’s ghost.
He scored no knockout goals at that World Cup – or indeed any other – and the sight of him picking up the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player has been roundly mocked – even by Maradona himself. He did not have the “personality” for the captain’s role, according to Maradona. He would never be a “leader”. Those harsh words – caught in a conversation to Pele – were revealing.
He followed Copa heartache in 2011 with more in 2015 and now this. It is easy for Messi to quit – the hard thing would be to persist. He doesn’t have the stomach for that particular fight.
Ronaldo, though, endures. He is a man who risked everything to take Portugal through the 2014 World Cup. The patellar tendintis from which he suffered threatened to end his career there and then but he would not stop. It was Ronaldo’s four goals in the play-off round against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden the previous winter that Portugal could thank for their place in Brazil in the first place. For that contribution, he won the Ballon d’Or. Nothing Messi has ever done for Argentina has earned him his ones.
Ronaldo has been a senior international player for 13 years, scoring more European Championship qualification goals than anyone else. He has bridged the generational gap between Luis Figo and Renato Sanches – nearly 30 years apart in age. He is captain, record caps holder and all-time top scorer. He is the man Portugal look to again and again and relishes it.
The Real Madrid forward now enjoys near-total acclaim in his homeland. Portugal voted him its all-time greatest player in 2015 – ahead of Figo and Eusebio. Messi would never win an equivalent vote ahead of Maradona.
He was there in 2004 when Portugal lost the European Championship final. He was a semi-finalist at the World Cup two years later. He endured bitter disappointments at the hands of Germany in 2008 and Spain in 2010 and 2012. He hasn’t always played well at big tournaments and – like Messi – has had to face stern criticism from former players too. His ego was said to be out of control, causing an imbalance to the group. It would be easy for Ronaldo too to give up. But he always comes back for more.
There is a sense of destiny unfulfilled about Ronaldo’s international career too but Portugal enjoys nothing of the international football history or prestige that Argentina does. That does not, however, stop Ronaldo from believing his time will come with the national team.
“I've always said my personal dream is to win a big trophy with my country,” he told the Times of India before Euro 2016. “I have won a lot of big trophies in in my career, the biggest you can win, but a title with my country is always important. It's a big, big dream to fulfil.”
Here he is - at the age of 31 and with more money, Champions Leagues and Ballons d’Or than you could ever imagine – trying again.
He isn’t walking away.