By Maximilian Heath
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Hundreds of Argentines protested in the pouring rain on Saturday, demanding that soccer star Lionel Messi return to Argentina's national team after he unexpectedly quit following a loss in the regional Copa America final.
Messi, a five-time World Player of the Year, has played in three Copa America finals, in 2007, 2015, and 2016, as well as in the 2014 World Cup final, losing every time. During the finals match with rival Chile last week, he missed Argentina's opening penalty in the shootout after the game ended 0-0 and was in tears sitting near the team dugout.
"I think this is it. It's over for me on the team," he told reporters shortly after the match.
Nevertheless, Argentines, at the urging of public figures such as President Mauricio Macri and Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona, gathered Saturday evening around the Obelisco, a monument on one of Buenos Aires' central avenues where fans traditionally celebrate sporting victories.
Waving banners that lauded Messi in superlative terms, they begged the star to don the national squad's iconic blue and white stripes once again.
"There's a saying that there's a Messi every 500 million years and we're enjoying that, so we have to be grateful that we live in this time," said fan Santiago Bordero.
After Argentina's loss against Chile in the final, which took place in New Jersey, Messi returned to Argentina and spent time in his native city of Rosario. He then went to the Bahamas on vacation, while many Argentines awaited further statements from the star.
Argentina's national squad returns to action in September when it takes on traditional rival Uruguay in a qualifying stage match for the 2018 World Cup.
Ranked third among teams in South America's CONMEBOL soccer federation, Argentina is currently qualifying. However, after the team scored only five of 12 goals in its last four matches when Messi was out due to injury, Argentines had been anxious to see him return to the field.
"He has to come back - excuse the emotion - but it's what I feel," said Juan Alberto Salas. "For me, he's exceptional, a god."
(Reporting by Maximilian Heath; Writing by Gram Slattery; Editing by Dan Grebler)