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.
Imploring their heroThe Argentine fans responded with a chorus of “MESSI, MESSI” – imploring their hero to give them one last effort.
Early in extra time, Argentina got a chance on the counter-attack when Sergio Aguero escaped down the left side. Now Messi was running, straining every fibre to get alongside Aguero for when the pass came across the face of goal.
But Aguero shot weakly and the ball ran out of play for a throw on the far side. Messi turned and walked slowly away, head bowed, lost in his own thoughts. Manuel Neuer ran over to take the throw, knowing Messi wouldn’t bother closing anyone down.
Argentina had settled for penalties, and it looked like they would get there until seven minutes from time when Schürrle’s hooked cross from the left sailed over a suddenly disorganised defence.
Instant controlThere was Mario Götze, a recently introduced substitute, an interloper on the stage meant for Messi. His instant chest control and volley was sweet, but it was as though Sergio Romero had forgotten where the goal was – he seemed too far over to his right side as the ball flashed by on his left.
So it was that Götze, and not Messi, will be the name that goes down alongside Ghiggia as the men whose goals have won the World Cup at the Maracana.
Messi’s dream of emulating Maradona is over.
In the end, Messi didn’t have the strength to do it. In the season leading up to Mexico 1986, Maradona played 31 times for his club. Messi missed two months of this season with a torn thigh muscle and still played 46 times for Barcelona.
For five years he has played nearly every game and was rushed back from nearly every injury. For most of that time, Argentina have been making do with the dregs of what is left over.
Finite seamBarcelona will feel entitled to drain Messi’s energy, they’re the ones that pay him €400,000 a week. But from what we have seen in Brazil they are mining a finite seam, and Messi’s reserves are dangerously low.
As the stadium announcer said there would be two minutes of additional time, Mascherano raced forward from defence and forced a ball through to Messi, who was chopped down in the right channel.
One last chance to put the ball into the box. The stadium booed as Messi sized up the opportunity. He ran up, and ballooned the ball over the bar. Humiliation. The Brazilians roared their derision.
The Argentines had sung all night and all day about Maradona being greater than Pele. They’ll never sing the same about Messi now, and one more Golden Ball to add to all the ones he’s already won can never make up for that.