Super Mario takes centre stage as drained Messi sees dreams of immortality slip away
Argentine looked a shadow of himself despite picking up yet another award
At 6:54pm Rio time, the stadium announcer read out the news that, actually, nobody had been waiting for. The Golden Ball for Best Player of the World Cup would go to Argentina’s Number 10 – Lionel Messi.
Messi’s face appeared on the big screen. He looked crushed.
Maybe he was thinking of that moment just after half-time, when he had got free behind the German defence. He had shot towards the bottom right corner, but the ball curled a couple of inches wide. He had got the chance and he had been unable to take it.
Messi has scored more than 400 career goals because those chances are usually lasered into the corner of the net without compromise. It had been the wrong kind of finish. Hitting the ball from that position with the inside of the foot made it curl away from goal.
Messi had finished the first half having, as always, covered less ground than any other player, and with fewer sprints than anyone except Javier Mascherano.
Has his lack of activity throughout the tournament been an agreement with the manager, a tactical decision to ensure that Argentina’s most decisive player had the explosive energy to make the difference at the crucial moments?
Or have we been watching a burnt-out shell of a man who has been intimidating opponents by sheer weight of reputation?
Maybe the miss was still playing on his mind five minutes later when he took so long to get back from an offside position that he wasted a good attacking chance. The sight of Messi strolling back while the game went on, then having to let a good pass sail by without being able to touch it, was faintly ridiculous. Only the best player in the world can get away with moments like that.
He made no attempt to put German midfielders under pressure, watching the likes of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger as they played forward passes. At these moments Argentina are playing with a man down. It’s a tribute to the organisational ability of Mascherano that they got to the end of the World Cup conceding only four goals.
Hanging backA few minutes later Messi got the ball with the German defence caught high up the field, but rather than drive at their disintegrating line, he held up the ball and waited for others to make runs. This was not Messi. Messi runs directly at defenders and beats them. Here he was hanging back, trying to pick out runners, as though he was Andrea Pirlo.
On 74 minutes, there was another flash of what we were hoping to see. Messi got the ball on the right, came briefly to a complete stop, then began one of his deceptive, shuffling runs around the edge of the area, manoeuvring to shoot on his left foot. Everyone knew what was coming and Benedikt Howedes scrambled to stop it. He couldn’t prevent Messi getting the shot in but maybe he did enough to stop Messi getting it on target.