The captain pulled his team through the group stages but his magic dimmed as the World Cup final approached
Lionel Messi had stood, hands on hips and shoulders slightly hunched, for almost two minutes while Bastian Schweinsteiger received treatment at his feet. The ball had been placed for a free-kick just outside the German penalty area and, with time effectively up, the nervous tension pouring from stands on to the pitch reflected the realisation this would be Argentina’s last chance to secure parity. One final opportunity. Up stuttered the man on whom a nation’s hopes had always rested to plant his right foot, swing with his left and send the ball arcing up over the wall but, excruciatingly for the Albiceleste, harmlessly into the crowd.
It was a moment that summed up Messi’s World Cup final. Actually, it encapsulated his tournament ever since that scintillating first-half display against Belgium in Brasília when he was billed as the inspiration sweeping this team to this trophy for the first time in 28 years. There was a puff of the cheeks in despair before a grimace tensed Messi’s jaw as he stared up at the heavens with the look of one betrayed, abandoned at the last.
Argentina had pinned their hopes on the little master emulating Diego Maradona on this, the grandest of stages, and yet there had always been two scripts his evening might have followed: one glorious, one desperate. After all, El Diez had conjured a winner for Jorge Burruchaga against this opposition at the Azteca in the 1986 final but, four years later, had been inconsolable in Rome as German players celebrated all around.
Messi held back his tears. All he offered at the final whistle was a left hand to his brow, his fingers ruffling his hair as if he wished he could hide away. Escape. The Fifa study group’s decision to award him the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament almost felt cruel, forcing him to trudge sheepishly up the steps alongside Manuel Neuer, the recipient of the Golden Glove, to collect his trophy.
He did so in a daze, offering only a vacant stare into the middle distance. The organisers might have fancied the idea of one of the great players of the modern age holding aloft a trophy at the Maracanã but this was hardly a consolation. The moment had passed, the chance of an image by which to remember Brazil 2014 long since snatched away. There was nothing to celebrate here.
Why put him through this charade when others – Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, Toni Kroos, take your pick – would have been worthy winners? Messi’s tournament, after all, had petered out a fortnight ago. He returned to the pitch with the trophy dangling limply at his side, as if waiting to be deposited in the first dustbin he could find.
Rarely here had he looked the player who had conjured that wondrous, defence-splitting pass at the Estádio Nacional in the quarter-final, or the extra-time assist which had supplied Angel di María with the winner against Switzerland in the last 16. Or, indeed, the irresistible form which had yielded four goals in the group stage. Rather, the Maracanã witnessed Messi at a plod for long periods, the same player who had appeared weighed down by expectation in the semi-final against Holland in São Paulo. He had been cramped there, his every touch prompting Oranje opponents to swarm around him to snuff out his threat. Germany had not pursued that tactic. Where Schweinsteiger is a colossus at the base of their midfield, he was never assigned to man-mark the 27-year-old out of the contest. There was, in theory, space for Messi to dazzle but, for one reason or another, the zest of last month had fizzled out. This crowd only saw him at his best in flashes where his team had needed him to dazzle throughout.
Admittedly, he would have been affected by the death of Jorge Lopez, a journalist killed in a car crash on the eve of the semi-final and, briefly, the young Messi’s flatmate in Barcelona. His peripheral display perhaps also reflected a lack of fitness. Last season had been disrupted by hamstring problems and, with his body crying out for rest, his movement had become even more conservative. He appeared almost uninterested at times, strolling while Germans pinged their passes around him, his tactic forever to wait on an opportunity to spring into life: nine minutes in, Enzo Pérez stole possession back deep inside the Argentine half and, in a split second, Messi darted upfield in anticipation of a pass. That was not the only occasion when he succeeded in isolating Mats Hummels but those chances, first with a pull-back scrambled clear and then a flick beyond Neuer which Jérôme Boateng hacked away, did not yield reward.
There had been uncertainty in his eyes for some time, that rather dazed expression creeping in as this contest dragged. He had stopped to vomit on the pitch during the first half, though that is not unusual for this player. His one real moment to write his own script had come three minutes into the second half when Lucas Biglia liberated the captain behind Boateng for Messi to collect. He had glanced up to sense Neuer’s momentum and chose to role his effort towards the far corner, only for the shot to skim wide of a post. It was not as clear-cut a chance as that missed by Gonzalo Higuaín, but the groan from those clad in sky blue and white in the stands reflected what is expected of Leo.
Messi should not be judged on Brazil 2014, or its final. He is a player who has scored 354 goals in 425 games for Barcelona, and won three Champions League and six La Liga titles. But this had been his opportunity, in his prime, to elevate his status on the international game to that of Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, even Pelé.
He will turn 31 during the next World Cup in Russia. His moment may have passed. This final was indeed decided by a diminutive attacker, though Mario Götze stands seven centimetres taller than Messi. Haunted still, the Argentinian will feel yet more diminished as this defeat sinks in.