Will Messi and Ronaldo quit the international stage after World Cup pain?
Four France goals ended Lionel Messi's fourth World Cup on Saturday (June 30) and may have brought down the curtain on an international career seemingly destined to end in disappointment.
Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona - Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain - December 23, 2017 Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi leave the pitch at halftime REUTERS/Stringer
Tens of thousands of Argentines poured into Kazan hoping to see Messi carry an ageing side over one more hurdle after his solitary goal in Russia helped avoid an embarrassing group-stage exit against Nigeria.
He played his part with two assists in a World Cup classic in the last-16 tie but it was not enough to save Argentina's fragile defence from the firepower of France and, in particular, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe in a 4-3 defeat.
"It will depend how we do, how it ends," Messi said before heading to Russia on whether he would continue on the international stage after the World Cup.
The last 16 is the earliest he has exited the competition.
Having turned 31 earlier in the tournament, it looks increasingly like defeat in the final four years ago is as close as he will come to matching Diego Maradona's feat of leading Argentina to glory in 1986.
For all his heroics at club level with Barcelona, Messi - who left his homeland for the Catalan capital aged just 13 - is still looked upon unfavourably when set against Maradona by many in Argentina, who compare their records at international level.
After the 2014 defeat to Germany in Brazil, there was more heartbreak on penalties in the final of the 2015 Copa America and the 2016 Copa America Centenario, both times at the hands of Chile.
Messi missed his spot-kick in the 2016 final, prompting an uncharacteristic spur-of-the-moment decision to retire from international football.
"The fact we've lost three finals led to some complicated moments with the Argentine press due to the differences in seeing what it means to reach a final," Messi told Barcelona-based newspaper Sport.
"It is not easy and has to be appreciated. It's true that winning them is important, but getting there is not easy."
MESSI REVERSES RETIREMENT
That became obvious as, even after Messi quickly reversed his retirement from international football, Argentina struggled to even make it to Russia.
Messi missed eight qualifying matches through injury and suspension, of which Argentina won only one.
Trailing 1-0 to Ecuador in their final qualifier, the two-time world champions were on course to miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970 until Messi stepped up to score a hat-trick at altitude in Quito.
Messi's heroics that night could not cover over the cracks appearing on the field, nor his frustration with a chaotic federation off it.
Messi publicly described the Argentine federation as "a disaster" due to logistical problems suffered by the team during the 2016 Copa America.
Argentina's preparations for Russia were disrupted when their final warm-up friendly against Israel was cancelled over security fears after the venue of the game was switched to Jerusalem.
The fallout from the defeat to France has already begun, with Javier Mascherano the first of many players expected to retire from international football.
"From now on I am just another fan," said the 34-year-old.
Messi would be 35 by the time the Qatar World Cup kicks off in 2022.
"I think that this World Cup came just in time for us," said Sergio Aguero, who has played alongside Messi at international level since they were teenagers.
Now Messi must decide whether to prioritise the twilight of his career at club level with Barca by cutting down on regular transatlantic trips to serve his country.
Or if he can summon up the energy for one last shot at glory in Argentina's colours.
RONALDO ON THE SAME PATH?
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo saw his World Cup dreams also slip away. But he gave no hint as to whether he plans to continue playing for Portugal.
The reigning European champions were undone by two Edinson Cavani goals for Uruguay in their last-16 tie in Sochi, despite Pepe bringing them level at one point early in the second half.
Ronaldo will be nearly 38 by the time the next World Cup comes around in Qatar in 2022.
"Now is not the time to talk about the future, either of the coach or the players," the Portugal skipper said after the game.
The 33-year-old did however say that the European champions could look to the future with confidence.
"I am sure that Portugal will continue to be one of the best teams in the world. We have a young and ambitious squad," he said.
Remarkably, neither Ronaldo nor Messi have managed to score a single goal in a knockout tie in four World Cups going back to 2006.
Ronaldo reached the semi-finals with Portugal in his first World Cup in Germany, but has never made it past the last 16 since then.
This has been his best World Cup in terms of goals scored, as he leaves with four in total, including a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Spain in the group stage.
His tally is one behind the tournament's current leading scorer Harry Kane, with Ronaldo also missing a penalty in the 1-1 draw with Iran.
"He is an exceptional player," said Uruguay's veteran coach Oscar Tabarez.
"He is their leader, their captain. You need to really concentrate to make sure he is not successful against you, but that is very difficult."
Portugal coach Fernando Santos was hopeful that the Real Madrid man will continue to represent his country for some time yet, with Portugal's next challenge to defend the European Championship title they won in France two years ago.
"I am sure he will. Cristiano still has a lot to give to the game," Santos said when asked if he felt his captain would carry on representing his country.
Portugal will take part in the inaugural UEFA Nations League later this year, beginning against Italy in September.
By that time, Ronaldo's situation at club level will be clearer after he raised doubts about his future with Real Madrid in the wake of their Champions League final win against Liverpool in May.
"There is another tournament starting in September and of course we hope Cristiano will be with us to help the younger players grow," Santos said.
"We have many young players and it is important to have our captain there."