By Simon Evans, Outside the Box
Is the great Lionel Messi calling it quits in the blue and white shirt of Argentina?
It certainly sounded that way after Argentina lost the Copa America final for a second straight year to Chile on Sunday night in New Jersey. To make matters unfathomably worse Messi, the man who has scored from all angles and all distances, missed a penalty in the shoot-out, ballooning his spot-kick high over the bar.
"That's it for me and the national team. It's not for me, it's been four finals. Sadly I think it's over for me," he told reporters in the dressing room after the game. TV images showed him distraught and in tears on the pitch after the game was over.
Perhaps it was just anguished talk in the heat of the moment, but his apparent retirement from the national squad is making headlines around the world
The greatest team in the world at this moment with the great player of this era leading their frontline - yet four times Messi and Argentina have lost in a final in the last decade, unable to even score once.
Three of those finals came in the last three years: the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and now two consecutives Copa Americas. They lost a fourth final - and third Copa - in 2007 to Brazil.
Chile defended their Copa America crown in the same fashion as they won it last year on home soil - via penalty kicks when the game finished goalless after extra-time.
But those raw facts tell nothing of the indefatigable running, harrying and breaking of a Chile team which closed down Messi and his team-mates for 120 minutes, never letting up, never losing concentration for a moment that would surely be exploited.
It is 23 years since Argentina last won a major trophy and while they will again be among the favorites in the World Cup in two years time in Russia, the pressure then will surely be unbearable on a team and a star who have seen two continental and one world title slip through their grasp.
There are those who believe that Messi cannot be considered a contender for the designation of greatest of all-time, ahead of his compatriot Diego Maradona and Brazilian Pele, until he wins a major title with Argentina.
Messi may have won everything with Barcelona but, the argument goes, it doesn’t count towards an ultimate legacy unless he brings glory to his country.
It could be replied that the amount of wondrous goals he has scored has earned him his status regardless of what has happened in a light blue and white shirt in the biggest games. But after a deeply disappointing performance in the World Cup final against Germany in Rio, where Messi looked lacking in energy and inspiration, this was a chance for him to end the debate - and he failed to do so in a highly personal way.
After the tireless and inspired Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal had seen the first spot-kick of the shoot-out saved by Sergio Romero, Messi took the responsibility of his team’s first penalty. Taking a short run-up, rarely a good idea, the 29-year-old’s shot was massively off-frame and left him staring in disbelief.
It was the second miss which actually cost Argentina the win, Lucas Biglia’s attempt being superbly saved by Messi’s Barcelona team-mate Claudio Bravo. Then Chile’s Francisco Silva kept his cool to convert the winning kick.
It was reward for Chile’s exertions throughout a pulsating, if never pretty, final which had been at risk of being ruined by referee Heber Roberto Lopes’s eagerness.
Chile lost Marcelo Diaz to a second yellow card in the 28th minute - the defender had already been cautioned for a crude foul on Messi when he bodychecked the forward. It was a cautionable offence although one had to wonder if, in the circumstances a final warning might have been enough.
Lopes then booked Messi, for diving, when closed down by Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, although replays suggested he may have simply lost his balance.
The teams were back on equal numbers two minutes before the break when Argentina’s Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo was sent off for a tackle from behind on Vidal, in what was another harsh call.
There were few chances in the opening half with the biggest one falling to Gonzala Higuain, the man who had wasted several against Germany in Rio, and again he was off-target, breaking clear into the area before slipping his shot wide.
The second half was a frantic affair, riddled with fouls as neither side was able to find much time and space despite the game being ten against ten. Extra-time, when so often the teams run out of gas, was surprisingly entertaining however with both teams appearing desperate to avoid a repeat of the shoot-out of 12 months ago.
In extra-time Argentina keeper Sergio Romero did well to keep out Eduardo Vargas while at the other end Bravo produced a brilliant save to keep out a Sergio Aguero header.
Bravo was to be the hero in the shoot-out and was mobbed by his celebrating team-mates at the end as Chile, who had never won a major title until last year, tasted their second in as many years.
The tournament which has brought plenty of drama and excitement will be remembered though for one thing above all - the Messi miss.
Of all the player, of all the moments.
Outside the Box is a Univision Copa America soccer blog by Simon Evans a British-born, Miami-based sports journalist who has covered every World Cup since 1998 and has worked across Europe and North America covering football for a number of international media outlets. He was the co-author of the ‘Rough Guide to European Football’ and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, Reuters and many other publications. @sgevans