Argentinian football is imploding, and Lionel Messi’s international retirement will put more focus than ever on the national Football Association (AFA).
This was supposed to be the year. Argentina’s last senior international trophy came in 1993, when a double from Gabriel Batistuta – who Messi surpassed as their record goalscorer with his 55th strike in the Copa America Centenario semi-final against United States – guided La Albiceleste to the Copa trophy with a 2-1 win over Mexico.
After the disappointment of losing the 2014 World Cup final to Germany in extra time and the Copa showpiece to Chile the following year, not forgetting defeat at the final hurdle in the 2007 edition, 2016 looked like time to end the 23-year drought.
Messi appeared destined to restore the glory days when he, along with the likes of Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero, helped inspire Argentina to a triumphant campaign at the 2008 Olympics – a golden generation.
But with another penalty shoot-out loss to Chile in the Centario showpiece at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Sunday, a fourth defeat in an Argentina final, Messi – someone not accustomed to being on the losing side with Barcelona – announced his intention to retire.
“I was thinking about it in the locker room. That this is the end for me in the national team,” the Argentina captain, who missed his spot-kick in the final, said in the wake of the defeat.
“It’s four finals, it’s not for me. Unfortunately we tried, I tried, but that’s it.
“It’s for the good of everyone. We were not satisfied with making the final and not winning it.
“I’ve tried a lot to be champion with Argentina. It didn’t happen, I couldn’t do it.
“The decision is already made. That’s it.”
But it is not just the perennial disappointment from being runners-up that will likely have influenced Messi’s comments.
The AFA has long been a strange beast, but, since Julio Grondona’s death brought his 35-year reign as president to an end in 2014, it has plunged into disarray.
Last December’s shambolic presidential election drew the attention of the world when, despite there being 75 delegates present, a vote of 38-38 was counted.
Provisional president Luis Segura, who replaced Grondona, remained at the helm as the elections were pushed back, but opposing candidate Marcelo Tinelli has since pulled out.
With a permanent replacement for Grondona still not confirmed, elections scheduled for June 30 were postponed by the Argentinian government pending an investigation into the misappropriation of finances related to the national ‘Futbol Para Todos’ scheme.
This raised concerns that Argentina could be banned from competing at the Copa America Centenario, with government interference in football matters banned by FIFA.
And, on Friday, FIFA announced its decision to appoint a “normalisation committee” with a mandate that put it in charge of “running the daily affairs of the AFA, revising the AFA statutes in order to bring them in line with the current FIFA Standard Statutes, and organising elections accordingly by 30 June 2017 at the latest.”
The worst case scenario could see Argentina’s FIFA affiliation revoked, disqualifying them from 2018 World Cup qualification and preventing domestic sides taking part in international competition.
This will be a severe concern for Boca Juniors fans, who are scheduled to watch their team face Independiente del Valle in the Copa Libertadores semi-finals next month.
Domestic concerns are heightened by a lack of clarity over the structure of the upcoming season’s league campaign.
Shortly before his death, Grondona authorised a change to the structure of Argentina’s top flight that resulted in a 30-team tournament, running out of sync with Europe, for 2015.
After one season those teams were split into two groups for a transitional competition, but there is not yet clarification over how the 2016-17 season will be run.
With confusion and chaos paramount in all sections of Argentinian football, Messi’s retirement may well have come even if he had got his hands on the trophy.
The 29-year-old vented his frustration when he called out the AFA with an example of poor organisation when their flight to New Jersey was delayed, branding the governing body “a disaster”. Their response, however, insisted the blame lay with the unsuitable weather alone.
But with other stars such as Aguero, Mascherano and Di Maria potentially following their captain’s lead in turning their back on the national team, the AFA must look at itself.
Their only hope is that FIFA’s normalisation committee help clear up the mess, enticing Messi and his team-mates to return for another shot at glory at World Cup 2018.
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