- Lionel Messi is a worthy winner of the Golden Ball
- The “best footballer in the world” has been losing World Cup finals since 1954
- An ordinary Argentina side came close, but hit their natural glass ceiling
So the dust begins to settle. After almost five weeks of non-stop football, where digesting each game is an impossibility before the next course is served, it’s time to take stock and make sense of it all. No transfer tittle-tattle prior to the return of Billy Smart’s FA Premier Circus in August for Soccer Scribe. No Siree, Sideshow Bob.
In the aftermath of Argentina’s final defeat, some observers have dismissed the performance of Lionel Messi in Brazil, claiming that he’s missed out on his place in the pantheon as well as the World Cup winner’s medal that Mario Goetze snatched away from him at the Maracana on Sunday. Indeed, some have gone so far as to fulminate at Messi’s Golden Ball award, claiming that there were more deserving winners.
Well, first of all, Lionel Messi had a very good World Cup. His magnificent goals against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria, and his crucial assist for Angel DiMaria against Switzerland were among the very best moments of the tournament. As a collection, they amount to a compelling body of work.
That said, he was largely marked out of the semi-final in Sao Paulo by the Dutch and missed a gilt-edged chance against Germany in the final. Consequently, he ended on a low note. The argument against him is that he did little at the sharp end.
So, who should have won instead? Many people suggest James Rodriguez of Colombia. Undoubtedly, Rodriguez has a body of work in this tournament that stands comparison with Messi’s. Marvelous goals against Japan and Uruguay speak for themselves. However, if we’re going to eliminate Messi because he “didn’t perform” in the semi-final and final, why are we giving Rodriguez the nod when he didn’t even make the last four? Personally, Rodriguez shaded it for me, but only because he scored two more goals. He couldn’t inspire his team to beat what we’re now told was a pub team. Unfair? I think so. Rodriguez played well in defeat, but his team was outgunned and laboured under an inferiority complex. That wasn’t his fault.
Others have suggested that a German player should have won. But why? It’s an individual award. Germany’s success was built on team-work and in executing the system that Joachim Loew has designed over the last six years. Thomas Mueller had a fine tournament, but as part of a collective effort rather than for any mesmeric performances after his Portugal hat-trick. Philipp Lahm was mediocre until moved back into his rightful spot at full-back. Toni Kroos had an abysmal final. Mesut Oezil never got going. No, Germany won because of the hive effect. Different players stood up at different times (Mats Hummels in the quarter-final, Jerome Boateng and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the final, Andre Schuerrle and Manuel Neuer against Algeria). Germany played like the Borg.
Arjen Robben was the best of the Dutch, but missed his moment in Sao Paulo when tackled by Javier Mascherano. The Argentinian enforcer had a fine tournament himself, but did he have more individual moments of genius than Messi? I think not.
To my mind, Messi suffers for being the best player in the world in a losing final effort. He’s following a long line of best players in the world who have lost the biggest game of all.
Ferenc Puskas, lame and curtailed, captained his side to a shock German defeat in Berne in 1954. Johan Cruyff was re-assessed after Berti Vogts blotted him out of Holland’s 1974 decider in Munich. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, two-time Ballon d’Or winner by the 1982 showpiece, was hobbled by injury in Madrid against Italy and was substituted in a 3-1 defeat. Roberto Baggio ballooned the critical penalty in Italy’s losing LA shoot-out with Brazil in 1994. Ronaldo suffered a fit prior to the 1998 final in Paris, and ghosted through the match as if in a trance. Zinedine Zidane was sent off into an ignominious retirement in Berlin six years later. So, Messi is in good company.
Many people seem determined to rank players solely on their World Cup exploits. First of all, ranking players from different generations is a pointless exercise. Secondly, while the World Cup should be considered when examining a player’s legacy, it isn’t the sole arbiter of greatness. Cristiano Ronaldo has no World Cup legacy, but he’s unquestionably one of the best of his generation.
All things considered, Argentina did well to get to the final – I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have made it had they not been recipients of a very soft draw – and Messi made an impact, dragging them to the last four. Like the Germans in 2002, Argentina lacked the depth of talent to beat the very best – but they were effective and disciplined enough to beat teams they should be beating. They very nearly beat Germany, too, and go home with their heads held high.