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Does Messi's retirement mark the beginning of the end for international football?


There is no doubt that Euro 2016 has been a thrilling ride so far, with unexpected results, minnows progressing at the expense of bigger teams and a beautifully lopsided knockout phase which will see traditional footballing giants slugging it out in one half of the draw while a host of smaller nations will all fancy their chances of reaching the final in the other.

Meanwhile, the Copa America has just reached an epic conclusion in the US, with Argentina losing on penalties to Chile - the third consecutive major final in which they've lost in the final. It was a tournament full of surprises, with Brazil suffering a shock exit in the group stage and Mexico suffering a Brazil-esque collapse in the quarter-final, losing 7-0 to the victorious Chile.

However, that final defeat has proved to be the last straw for the number one footballer on the planet, Lionel Messi, who has announced his retirement from the international game.

In the aftermath of the game he said, "It's not meant for me. For me the national team is over. I've done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion... It's been four finals [Messi was also on the losing side in the 2007 Copa America final], I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn't get it, so I think it's over."

He continued, "I think this is best for everyone. First of all for me, and then for everyone. I think there's a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, as we are not satisfied reaching a final and not winning it. It's very hard, but the decision is taken. Now I will not try more and there will be no going back."

Lionel Messi

Messi and his Argentina team-mates in the aftermath of the Copa America final defeat to Chile

Despite winning 113 caps and scoring a record 55 goals, Messi is still only 29 years of age. He could comfortably play on for another two tournaments.

Meanwhile, his perpetual rival Cristiano Ronaldo has come under fire for a lacklustre tournament in France, seeming disinterested and responding spikily to any criticism that comes his way. At the age of 31 and playing in a Portugal team that looks unlikely to achieve too much (albeit they are in the quarter-finals), it would not come as a surprise if he, too, decided to hang up his boots at the end of the tournament, perhaps thinking that it is not worth the hassle and to prolong his club career by avoiding international games.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Off the field, Euro 2016 has been marred by the hooliganism and violence of Russian fans, with their team threatened with expulsion from the tournament before they went of their own accord in the group stages - and it is this country that is due to host the next World Cup in 2018 following a highly dubious bidding process during the Blatter-led peak era of FIFA's corruption. With the threat of violence and a continuing record of racism in the grounds, there is the very real possibility that fans will decide against travelling to the country for the tournament. For certain, it's hard to imagine casual fans deciding to risk travelling to Russia to take part in fan zones and the like, which all add to the atmosphere of the competition. Thus, what should be the defining point in football's calendar every four years faces being staged in an unfriendly territory, with few fans, the stench of corruption pervading, and shorn of the two best players in the world.

As if that wasn't enough, 2020's European Championships are being held without a host country, with matches being staged all over Europe - an idea that is a worthwhile experiment in bringing the big matches to places all across the continent, but could, again, lead to a loss of that 'tournament feeling' and festival feel.

Add in to that the impending disaster of the hard-to-imagine-but-even-more-corrupt-than-Russia 2022 World Cup in Qatar where, again, fans may well decide against going - particularly given the country's lack of any footballing history, alcohol laws and Christmas scheduling - and the next few tournaments begin to look far from appetising for fans and players alike. With the club game gaining ever more money and ever more attention, it's not hard to imagine even more players following Messi into premature retirement from the international game. In the World Cup's glory years, it was the one chance for players to show their skills on the world stage - now every weekend, their club exploits can be viewed around the world on YouTube. Do they really need to bother playing for their country?

However, against all of this doom and gloom, you only need to look at one player to be given hope for the future: Gareth Bale.

A man who sits on the top table of club football, winning two Champions League trophies with Real Madrid in three seasons with the prospect of more to come, who is the most expensive player in the world and stands to earn many millions more in the coming seasons. And a man who has seemingly made it his personal mission to, firstly, drag his native Wales into their first tournament final for 58 years, scoring seven of his team's 11 goals in qualifying and then take them to a truly unlikely sporting glory, scoring three of their seven in the finals. This is a man for whom tournament football is everything - and if Wales make it to the final, his performance and spirit has every right to be ranked alongside those of Diego Maradona, who led a talented Argentina side to World Cup glory in 1986 and then, through sheer force of will, guided a rather poorer version of them to the final in 1990. Bale shows that international football can still matter, and can still create a bigger sense of glory and emotion than the club game.

Gareth Bale

Bale celebrates Wales' win against Northern Ireland to progress to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals

And what of Messi? Can we really believe that this is it for the little genius and the international game? Goalkeeper Sergio Romero thinks not, saying, "I think he spoke while he was heated, because a beautiful opportunity escaped us. I can't imagine a national team without Messi."

He has enjoyed a famously love-hate relationship with the Argentine fans, who believe that he should win them every game, and who have perhaps not forgiven him for leaving the country when he was just 13 to join Barcelona. He has perhaps decided that it is not worth the effort of pushing himself every other summer to receive criticism when he doesn't deliver the ultimate prize.

But, as he says himself, "It was the thing I wanted the most" - can we really expect such a born champion to simply give up? Just one more push and he would be a national hero to rank alongside Maradona himself. It will surely be too great an accolade to resist.

Nonetheless, the travails of Messi and Ronaldo and the ongoing uncertainty over future World Cup tournaments mean that the international game is going to be under threat as never before in the coming decade.



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