The buildup to the 2016 Copa América Centenario final began with Lionel Messi complaining about the Argentine Football Association's inability to organise transport. In such situations, we mere mortals are constrained in our options, limited to a couple of angry tweets or a strongly worded letter. Messi, on the other hand, was so angry that he missed a penalty in an unsuccessful shootout and subsequently retired from international football.
Given this context of institutional dissatisfaction and sporting disappointment, and given the fact that Messi is only 29 years old and so still could, conceivably, be at or near his best for both the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2019 Copa América in Ecuador, it's hard not to suspect that this might turn out to be a temporary retirement. That a change or two behind the scenes might smooth things over. As such, all obituaries for Messi's international career will have a necessarily temporary air, which is why this isn't going to be one.
Instead, let's think about international tournaments, and how difficult a thing it is for any given individual to win one. For a start, a person has to be born in one of the few countries that is capable of doing so. Since little Lionel emerged squealing into the Rosario air, precisely five countries have won the men's World Cup and five the Copa América. Those are not good odds.
Then you have to be good at football. Not great; plenty of average footballers have carried away the big prizes. But good enough to be among your country's best options in any given position. (That probably does mean "great," by any reasonable definition. But this is elite football, where even good footballers are usually terrible, so we're under no pressure to be reasonable.) This, too, is exceptionally difficult.
And even if a given individual isn't great, it helps if they have some seriously good company. The Chile squad that's just lifted the trophy isn't the best 23 footballers in the world, but it does contain a couple of brilliant ones, plus the right kind of support in other areas. Messi, of course, has an advantage here, in that any squad that contains him automatically contains one of the greatest players in the history of the game. But even that isn't enough in itself.
Then there's the business of the tournament itself. That international tournaments aren't the greatest way to rigorously approach the question of "which team is best?" is fairly clear; they are, instead, the best available method that works around the normal season and allows people from all over the world, or the continent, to gather together and get (hopefully) happily merry in one another's company. A handful of games over a scant few weeks is fun, but it isn't very sensible, and tournaments are therefore subject to the forces of fortune and variance, which can render even the greatest helpless.
Which seems as good a point as any to look at Messi's record, which is an exemplary study in international not-quiteness. In the course of picking up his 113 caps he's lost two finals on penalties (2016 and 2015, both to Chile) and another (2014, to Germany) in extra time. He's lost a quarterfinal on penalties, too, to eventual champions Uruguay in 2011. And in 2007, while still a relative novice, he ended up on the wrong end of what might be Brazil's only truly excellent performance in a generation.
Should he have done better at any given individual moment in any of those games, such that it might have tipped the balance decisively in Argentina's favour? Perhaps. Certainly, it would have been a good idea to score his penalty against Chile. But equally, you can look at that lot — and at some of the players he's been supported with and managers he's been lumbered with — and think that there's not much more he could have done. Football's a team game, and most of the time there's not much one individual can do besides put themselves and their teammates in the best possible position and see how things shake out. And when they do so, repeatedly, and it still doesn't come off, then at some point they're going to think to themselves: Nah, sod this. This isn't much fun any more.
So if he is thinking that, then it would be totally understandable. After all, he's been good enough for long enough with Barcelona that he doesn't actually have anything left to prove; he's more than earned himself a position at the very top of the pantheon, at that precious place where arguments over who is best transform from argument of fact into statements of preference. If Messi was ever concerned with his place in history — and he generally seems quite inhumanly relaxed about such things, certainly in ContRas7 to some — then he no longer need be, and as such the international tournament question is simply between him, his own ambitions and his patriotism. And such things can only ever be for the individual to determine.
It would, of course, be a shame. Not just because he's a wonderful player to watch, but because watching him in a team that isn't Barcelona is, in some ways, significantly more interesting than seeing him surrounded by the best that money can buy, sticking another 12 past Levante. It's sort of the opposite of that persistent rainy-Tuesday-in-Stoke question: Can he do it in the sunshine, but without a defence?
Which is why, ultimately, we kind of have to hope that he's being a little hasty, or a little cute, or just a touch diva-ish, and that deep down he is actually thinking: Get me somebody that can organise a plane to Russia and I'll get on the plane to Russia. After all, that makes perfect sense too. Waiting around in airports is enough to drive anybody over the edge.