So at the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup and just prior to the Germany team being freshly medalled and handed the great trophy, Argentina’s captain and talisman Lionel Messi is dragged up almost against his will to receive the player of the tournament accolade – an award that looked like it didn’t mean a great deal to him and an ill-timed fuss that seemed only to add to his embarrassment and self-consciousness.
It was a slightly uncomfortable moment, but more than that it has drawn a lot of criticism from football commentators and fans alike who don’t believe Messi deserved the Golden Ball award.
The problem with someone of Lionel Messi’s stature is the level of expectation placed on him. He has been such an exceptional player, such a master of his art, for so many years now that everyone takes it for granted that he must be extraordinary in every game or tournament. They place a level of expectation on him that isn’t applied to others, not even say Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s easier for a James Rodriguez or to some extent even Neymar to impress, because the expectation is lower and they can surprise people.
Lionel Messi performed exceptionally in this World Cup. Apart from Maradona (yes, Maradona – that comparison must be irritating the life out of Lionel Messi by now), Argentina has never had a single individual player so single-handedly drag them through a tournament like Messi did this time around. This is an Argentina squad that almost lost to Iran and only got three points from that encounter because of Messi taking the initiative at the very end. He did that two other times in the tournament too. This was not a great Argentina squad. Without Messi they would have gotten nowhere near the final.
If Messi had enjoyed the kind of squad around him that Argentina boasted in previous World Cup tournaments, such as 2006 for example, he would’ve had that much more freedom to excel and to exert his powers. If Messi as he is now was in a team with players like Riquelme, Aimar, Crespo or Batistuta, to name just a few, his performance level and Argentina’s would be a whole different story.
Many believe Argentina was the best team in 2006 even though they were eliminated at the quarter final stage. By contrast, they certainly were not the second best team in the tournament this time and yet they got themselves to the final – on the shoulders of one player.
As much as Germany’s World Cup triumph has been an advert for team ethic, coordination and organization, this World Cup has also highlighted the pros and cons of having teams built around a single individual talent. The post Luis Figo Portugeuesse set-up is utterly ineffective and cannot prosper by placing everything on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo. Uruguay without Luis Suarez were utterly ineffective. Brazil without Neymar fell to pieces. And Argentina lives and dies by Lionel Messi.
Messi’s performance in the final itself wasn’t as lacking as some commentators are making out. It was a close match. Argentina could’ve won it two or three times in normal time. Messi didn’t play badly by any stretch of the imagination – he just didn’t live up to the level of expectation that people have of him.
But Argentina lost the Italia 90 final to Germany too and by the same score-line – in 1990 Maradona couldn’t conjure the magic to breach Lothar Matthaus’s German squad, and in 2014 neither could Messi: but Messi came closer. Argentina’s 1990 final performance was a shambles that descended into a disgrace.
But again Argentina would not have been in this year’s final at all without Messi. So why such objection to his being awarded player of the tournament?
Because he wasn’t on the winning side? The award is intended for an outstanding individual performance over the tournament, not for an outstanding team nor for an individual performance in the final itself. And yes, while Ayern Robben, James Rodriguez and a number of others should also be recognised, there can be no real argument against Lionel Messi.
Germany were overall more than worthy World Champions this time around; just as much as they were in 1990 with Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and the others. But I believe the next time around will be Messi’s time.