Argentina’s 1-0 defeat by Germany in World Cup final prevented Lionel Messi, who was named Player of the Tournament, from cementing his place in the pantheon of the truly great. While the 27-year-old has won everything there is to win — and broken every record there is to break — with Barcelona, the final offered him the opportunity to definitively seal his legacy in the sport.
Pele, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo all scored decisive goals in finals, while Diego Maradona created the goal that settled the 1986 tournament, but Messi found himself upstaged by Mario Goetze’s sensational extra-time winner for Germany. He would be haunted in particular by a glaring opportunity early in the second half, when he found himself with only Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to beat, but whipped his shot wide.
It was to be his only clear sight of goal and his failure to seize the chance continued a narrative that had taken root earlier in the knockout phase. Whereas Maradona had seemed to grow with each match as Argentina surged to the title in 1986, scoring braces against England and Belgium in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, Messi appeared to shrink. After dazzling in the group phase with four goals, he made the winning goal for Angel di Maria against Switzerland in the last 16, but in his own encounter with Belgium he flickered only sporadically, and in the semi-final against the Netherlands he was anonymous.
He has now gone four games without scoring for the first time under the stewardship of coach Alejandro Sabella, losing his capacity to make a difference at precisely the wrong time. His inability to reverse Argentina’s fate at the Maracana suggested that the fatigue of which his father has spoken weighed more heavily upon him that he has yet admitted. With 354 goals in 425 games for Barcelona, many of them works of art, his genius cannot be denied, but as he himself has admitted, there is no substitute for a World Cup winner’s medal.
“I would give all my personal records to be world champion,” he had told German tabloid Bild ahead of the final. “I’d prefer to win the World Cup than the Ballon d’Or. As a player, winning the World Cup is the biggest thing there is. It’s something you dream of as a youngster and that dream never fades away.” Whereas Holland had successfully man-marked Messi during the semi-final, Germany opted to crowd him out whenever he picked up the ball.
Bastian Schweinsteiger had shackled him masterfully during Germany’s 4-0 quarter-final win in 2010 and the Bayern Munich midfielder recorded early victories by nicking the ball away from Messi on a couple of occasions.
The moment that the thousands of Argentines inside the Maracana had been waiting for arrived a minute into the second half when Messi was freed by Lucas Biglia, but he overcooked his shot and rattled it wide of the right-hand past.
An injury-time free-kick from 30 yards offered one last improbable chance at redemption, but he hooked it over the bar. Where Maradona had broken down in tears after Argentina lost to West Germany in the 1990 final, Messi looked merely numb.