It was not supposed to end like this. Not in a cramped corridor at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, with an unwanted runners-up medal in his wash bag. Not with the sting of defeat bringing tears to his eyes. Not with another defeat in a final, another loss on penalties. And certainly not as the villain of the piece, having missed in the shoot-out.

But at the age of 29, Lionel Messi says his international career is over. He says there is no going back. And so the greatest player of the modern age is forced to come to terms with the fact that he has made the first major blot on his legacy. “I tried so hard to be a champion with Argentina,” he said. “But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it.”

The feeling of powerlessness must feel particularly novel. Messi has spent the whole of his career making things happen simply because he wanted them to. Even in this tournament, he scored five goals, including a stunning free-kick against the United States. But four defeats in major finals over a decade have finally broken his heart. Messi’s love affair with the national team is over.

“I tried many times to get a title and failed,” he said. “I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The choice for me is over, it is a decision.”

It has never been the easiest of relationships, for reasons that go back to the start of Messi’s career, when he made his debut in 2005 and was sent off after just 44 seconds for elbowing an opponent in the face. When his team-mates returned to the dressing room, they found the teenage Messi sitting in a corner, sobbing.

There are those in Argentina who claim that Messi’s devotion to the national team has never matched his devotion to Barcelona, and after this decision those same voices are emerging again.

“Messi is a Spaniard,” the Argentine football journalist Gabriel Anello said overnight. “Let him stay in Spain. Us Argentines don’t want him and don’t need him.”

Most of this is patently untrue. Argentina has always needed Messi, and Messi has always needed Argentina. But what is certainly true is that the question of Messi’s Argentine identity has never been clear-cut, ever since he left the country aged 13 to come to Spain.

It was a decision forced by circumstances. His club, Newell’s Old Boys, could no longer afford to pay for his expensive growth hormone treatment; Barcelona could, and so to Europe he went.

When he got to Barcelona’s academy, his strong Argentine accent marked him as an outsider in a dressing room full of native Catalans. In a sense, this epitomised the sense of double alienation that has afflicted Messi. To the Spanish, he was an Argentine. To the Argentines, he was Spanish. So little attention was paid to his early development that when the Argentine Football Association first invited him to play for the national side, nobody was quite sure how to spell his name. And so the letter was eventually addressed to “Leonel Mecci”.

Such was Messi’s apparent foreignness that in his early days with the national side, media would refer to him as an “Argentine-Spanish” player.

Perhaps this explains the frequently turbulent relationship between Messi and the Argentine public. When Argentina were eliminated in the quarter-finals of the 2011 Copa America, Messi was booed and whistled off the pitch.

The best way of understanding Messi’s career and his relationships is through the concept of family. Barcelona provided him with the family he left behind in Argentina. When Alex Sabella took over as the national team manager in 2011, he tried to recreate that sense of family. He made Messi the captain and built the side around him. It took them to within 90 minutes of winning the World Cup in 2014, within a penalty shoot-out of winning the Copa America in 2015 and 2016. But it was never quite enough.

Perhaps, then, it was always a marriage of convenience rather than a genuine blood tie: Argentina accepted Messi as long as he kept winning them football games. When Argentina failed, Messi was often lumped with the blame.

Perhaps Messi occasionally wonders what might have happened if he had played for Spain. He would have won the World Cup, possibly more than once. He would have been part of one of the great dynasties in international football history. He might even have discovered the sense of family he has always craved. But for now, his family is Barcelona, and it is to that world that he has decided to devote himself.

It may seem a strange way of putting it, but having turned his back on his country, Messi can now go home.

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