When Mario Gotze scored the eventual winner, the cameras instead of pointing to the delirious German (and local Brazilian) fans, went straight to Messi who looked like the weight of his legs had finally collapsed on him. After all, this was his 3rd game that he had played 120 minutes in less than 2 weeks, and the first time Argentina trailed. All the expectation was now on him to somehow miraculously rescue the game.
And then there was genuine outrage at Messi winning the Golden Ball and even Argentine legend Diego Maradona said it was a “marketing ploy”.
It’s easy to knock Messi while he’s down and say he shouldn’t be up there with the greatest of all time or deserve the Golden Ball, because he didn’t single-handedly win the World Cup.
Let’s dispel the notion of “single-handed”. What Diego Maradona did was a once in a lifetime event (and it happened before I was born) and in the modern game it’ll be nearly impossible to repeat. His hand of god goal? His 70 yard run to score the winner against England, and then dominating Belgium? Hey Lionel Messi did that too. But wait it wasn’t quite single-handed for Diego was it? Maradona had players like Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga who scored great goals along the way. Messi had himself, Angel di Maria until he got injured against Belgium, and an out of form Higuain, plus Sergio Aguero’s injury woes.
Did Pele win any of his World Cups single-handedly? No. Frankly, Pele wasn’t even the best player on his team in any of Brazil’s World Cup triumphs. He was outshone by Garrincha in 1962 and Jairzinho in 1970 and had his best World Cup as a 17 year old in terms of goal tally. Brazil were scoring so many goals that he didn’t really need to score and Brazil still would have won the tournament. They were that good. All of the previous champions have had structure and a very strong team ethic. West Germany on paper were constantly written off yet they had won 3 World Cups and appeared in 7 finals prior to yesterday: Teamwork, it matters.
So that brings us to present day. Argentina fought tooth and nail to make it to this World Cup final. If it wasn’t going to be through a flurry of goals from their world class strikers, it would be on the back of a much criticized defense with Messi providing moments of inspiration (see Switzerland, Belgium). The Netherlands had a clear plan to try and nullify him. It worked until they realized they had nullified themselves by focusing all their attention on him. Then the toughest test of all: A supremely confident Germany side with plenty of weapons. Yet for all of Germany’s superiority and possession dominance, Messi was still the great equalizer for the 90 minutes. He had several fantastic take-ons, a late freekick deep into extra time and an improbable header from a high Marcos Rojo cross. He was let down by his finishing, on this rare occasion in his career.
The narrative changed in an instant. If Messi scores any of those chances in normal time, he becomes the greatest player that ever lived and the man “who single-handedly carried Argentina to glory”. He would have eclipsed Maradona for good because the victory was even more improbable against a heavily favored Germany, and even more reliant on him. But that narrative would have also ignored the great defensive work put in by Garay, Zabaleta, Mascherano, and Romero in goal. Instead he and his team lost to one that’s been 8 years in the making, and now he becomes a mere mortal? That’s how history works.
Messi still has a claim to be one of the greatest of all time, and he had an excellent World Cup. That must not be lost on people, and in that sense, he did deserve the Golden Ball for his impact and performances. In games he didn’t score, the opposition had specifically sought to mark him out of the game by fouling or shadowing him. He could yet win the World Cup in 4 years time, but if he doesn’t it should hardly matter for his legacy.