BUENOS AIRES: Star striker Lionel Messi will return to play for the Argentine national football team for “love” of his country, despite earlier vowing to retire in frustration, he said on Friday.
Argentina’s new coach Edgardo Bauza promptly named him to the squad for two looming qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup.
It was heartening news for the country’s demanding soccer fans after Argentina were knocked out of the Olympic Games this week in the group stage, their latest in a string of humiliations.
The 29-year-old Barcelona superstar had abruptly announced his international retirement in tears after Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile on June 26.
“A lot of things went through my mind on the night of the final and I gave serious thought to quitting, but my love for my country and this shirt is too great,” he said on Friday in a statement released by his management company.
His earlier vow to quit had dismayed fans, many of whom held street rallies and posted online messages begging him not to go.
It became practically an affair of state when Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri called on him to stay. “It is a gift from God to have the best player in the world in a footballing country like ours,” Macri said in June.
“Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him.”
World Cup prep
Bauza met with Messi in Barcelona this week.
On Friday, he announced his list of players for games against Uruguay on September 1 and Venezuela on September 6.
He named Messi as well as Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero among six strikers in the squad. He notably left out Juventus forward Gonzalo Higuain.
Bauza took over the job from Gerardo Martino and was tasked with turning things around ahead of the 2018 World Cup, amid a management crisis at the Argentine Football Association.
“There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved in Argentine football, but I prefer to help from within and not to criticise from the outside,” Messi’s statement said.
“I send my thanks to all of those who want me to continue playing for Argentina. I hope that we’ll be able to give them something to cheer about soon.”
Argentina have suffered a string of disappointing losses in big tournaments with Messi, including the World Cup final in 2014. His vow to quit followed by Martino’s resignation deepened the chaos in the squad ahead of the Olympics.
Argentina eventually exited the Games in Brazil on Wednesday after a 1-1 draw with Honduras.
Five Ballons d’Or, four Champions League titles and three Club World Cups have prompted many to rank Messi the best player ever. But at international level he has only a 2008 Olympic title.
His shortage of international silverware is arguably the one thing that stops him definitively eclipsing Argentina’s World Cup-winning soccer legend Diego Maradona.
Messi’s phenomenal goal-scoring record and skills have helped secure eight league crowns with Barcelona as well as four Spanish Cups and six Spanish Super Cups. He helped lead Barcelona to league triumph in Spain this year, as one in a deadly trio of strikers along with Brazilian Neymar and Uruguayan Luis Suarez.
But Messi has suffered off the pitch in a court case in Spain. He was convicted last month of tax fraud related to his image rights and vowed to appeal.
The Spanish court handed him and his father Jorge a 21-month suspended jail sentence.The player was also fined the equivalent of $2.3 million and his father $1.8mn.