One of the saddest sights in the post-match melee in Rio was Lionel Messi – speechless, downcast, oblivious and pre-occupied. The little man could not even bring himself to smile, despite his surprise selection as the winner of the Golden Ball as the World Cup’s outstanding player.
Opinion is divided on Messi’s World Cup. Rarely have the media and general football fans pleaded for a player to embellish a competition in the way they have urged Messi on over the past month. It’s a little like when Maradona claimed his crown in 1986 after an anti-climatic 1982. The masses wanted a hero to attach to the competition’s position in the history of the game, particularly as the last few World Cups have been about “the team” more than individuals.
But Messi, while carrying the burden of a nation on his small frame and piggy-backing his team through with four goals in the group stage, didn’t light any blue touchpaper. He displayed glimpses of the impish football he performs for Barcelona week-in, week-out (when he’s fit), but there was no prolonged “wow factor”. By his family’s own admission, his legs were heavy and he looked tired.
Argentina were not a one-man-team in the way that Brazil relied upon Neymar, which says much about the overall weakness of the host nation, but they were functional and industrious. They would not have been good world champions. Messi was blotted out against the Dutch and he drifted in and out of the action in the final. He would probably feel he did not have the World Cup he was hoping for, despite picking up a silver medal and a Golden Ball.
But was the latter a gesture in recognition of Messi’s place in world football rather than his performance in Brazil 2014? I think it was. And it may also be an acknowledgement that Messi’s time has passed in terms of influencing a major global tournament. He’s 26 now, so in 2018, he may be past his best. Injuries over the past year may have blunted his edge and given he seems to have been around for ever, Messi could be a player that burns out quickly. A harsh assessment perhaps, but he would not be the first player whose “candle burned out long before, the legend ever did.”
There’s also the possibility that Argentina will never be equipped to win the World Cup in Messi’s time. The next series is in Russia, which will not be the most user-friendly of locations and although Germany broke the spell of no European side winning in the Americas, Russia will not even be like mainstream Europe. By 2022, Messi’s career will be at its end, if La Liga’s tackling hasn’t got him long before.
The decision around the Golden Ball winner is often bewildering. In 2010, it was Diego Forlan of Uruguay, the beaten semi-finalists, in 2006, Zinedine Zidane won, despite head-butting his way to an early bath in Berlin. Zidane should have perhaps won it in 1998, so there could have been a compensation issue going on. In 2002, Germany’s Oliver Kahn was named top player, in a year when Ronaldo clearly shined. But amid “Ronaldo Gate” in 1998, the young Brazilian was voted the tournament’s best when a number of Frenchmen should have been front-runners. The last World Cup winner to secure the Golden Ball was Romario in 1994.
The Golden Ball, then, seems to have become, in recent years, a consolation prize. This year, there were far more worthy winners than Messi: Neuer, Lahm, Kroos and Mueller of Germany; Robben of the Netherlands; James Rodriguez of Colombia; and Messi’s compatriot Mascherano.
We shouldn’t begrudge Messi too much, however. He’s a rare talent that has delighted over the years. He’s also a good ambassador for the game, eminently likeable. He is now in danger of not being able to translate the huge success he has enjoyed with Barcelona onto the international stage. But he’s not alone – players like Johann Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, George Best and Ferenc Puskas never won a World Cup, and they are still held in the highest regard. And so, too, will Rosario’s favourite son.
** Diego Maradona has expressed his displeasure at Messi being given the “Adidas Golden Boot”. Messi is, by the way, sponsored by Adidas!
Game of the People’s World Cup XI: Neuer, Lahm, Hummels, Thiago Silva, Blind; Messi, Robben, Mascherano, Rodriguez, Kroos; Mueller. Player of the tournament: Robben.