BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Soccer great Diego Maradona is urging fellow Argentines to leave Lionel Messi alone over the current star's decision to retire from Argentina's national team following its loss to Chile in the Copa America championship match.
In an interview on La Red radio, Maradona also ridiculed people who have criticized Messi for missing his shot as Chile won a penalty shootout to take the title, questioning those who find fault with a soccer star's play "without ever having touched a ball."
Despite Argentina's loss, "I consider Messi a winner," said Maradona, who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup.
Although he earlier joined in the chorus of Argentines calling on Messi to stay with the national squad, Maradona toned that down Wednesday.
"Let's let Messi have his holidays," he said. "From now on we have to build a unified idea and if Messi says 'I don't want more,' we will have to present another team."
Maradona criticized the Argentine Football Association, whose national team hasn't won a major title since the Copa America tournament in 1993. "We must have done something wrong because the AFA is the way it is. Argentine soccer is how it is, and we will be paying for it," he said.
Illustrating his dim view of the current national team, Maradona confirmed the authenticity of a leaked WhatsApp audio in which he implies to his 1986 teammates that their 1986 World Cup-winning squad was better than Messi's. "We didn't go to play against Chile. We went and beat Germany," he says. "You know what I mean about the difference between one team and the other?"
Messi touched off an uproar in Argentina with his abrupt resignation from the national team after Sunday's game with Chile.
He is the national team's career leading scorer with 55 goals in 113 international appearances, but he has never led Argentina to a major title, losing championship matches to Brazil in the 2007 Copa America, Germany in the 2014 World Cup and Chile in the 2015 and 2016 Copa America.
"That's it, I've already tried enough," Messi told the Argentine network TyC Sports after the latest loss to Chile. "It pains me more than anyone not being able to be a champion with Argentina, but that's the way it is. It wasn't meant to be, and unfortunately I leave without having achieved it."