RIO DE JANEIRO – Time was slipping away, yet Lionel Messi still had plenty.
Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, who committed the 120th-minute foul that offered Messi the opportunity for one last look at goal, was receiving treatment a few feet away. The Argentine maestro took advantage of the pause. He stood quietly for a moment then bent over and pressed his fingertips into the ball, testing the air pressure.
Messi was calm and deliberate, as if he hoped the measured pace of his movement would help clear his mind and calm any nerves. He was about 25 yards away and to the left of Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Argentina trailed, 1-0, in the dying seconds of the World Cup final at the Estádio do Maracanã and its fading hopes for a third title rested where they always had – at Messi’s feet.
It was an opportunity he’d surely rehearsed countless times – maybe as a boy in Rosario, where he was born the year after Diego Maradona carried Argentina to its second world championship. It became more realistic as Messi’s own star ascended in Barcelona, where he won every team trophy there is, along with a record four FIFA World Player of the Year awards. This was supposed to be Messi’s World Cup, the tournament where the sport’s most spectacular player, in his prime at 27, would end any debate about his place in soccer’s pantheon and in the hearts of his countrymen.
The free kick missed by miles, soaring over Neuer and into the crowd. Messi looked up toward the sky with an ironic, resigned smile on his face. That was it. The sport’s greatest goal scorer would be shut out for a fourth consecutive match, one he called “the most important of our lives” in a Facebook post. Argentina would lose the final and Messi, perhaps, his place alongside Pelé and Diego, if that ever was at stake.
It could have been so much simpler. Messi already has accomplished at the club level what Maradona never could, and he played this World Cup under a spotlight that his predecessor couldn’t have imagined 28 years ago. Win it, dominate it, and the argument is over.
Maradona was regarded as supremely gifted – Barcelona bought him from Boca Juniors for a world record $7.6 million in 1982. But he hardly was a legendwhen that fateful World Cup rolled around in ‘86. He'd escaped the slums of suburban Buenos Aires and won a couple of South American player of the year awards, one Argentine league title and a FIFA World Youth Championship. But he’d struggled with injuries and chemistry at Barcelona and hadn’t yet lifted Napoli to glory. No one expected or demanded a title when La Albiceleste arrived in Mexico. At 25, he wasn’t chasing immortality.
Messi was playing under a different sort of pressure here in Brazil and he rose to the occasion during the group stage. He scored in the opener versus Bosnia-Herzegovina, beat Iran with a stoppage-time goal then tallied twice against Nigeria. Messi then turned playmaker, setting up Ángel di María’s gorgeous game-winner in the round-of-16 matchup with Switzerland.
But as the tournament wore on and the opponents got tougher, Messi’s impact waned. Under manager Alejandro Sabella, Argentina has focused first on defense, starting with goalkeeper Sergio Romero and inspired by midfielder Javier Mascherano, who remains the squad's soul if not its captain. Argentina's soccer is far from the rhythmic, high-pressure, possession-based sort that Messi enjoys at Barcelona. Argentina had only 40 percent of the ball on Sunday, a statistic that might cause a riot at the Camp Nou.
Messi’s contributions in the knockout rounds were intermittent and tactical. Set up to stymie Argentina’s primary threat, opponents made sacrifices in the attack. Games tightened up and scoring chances were at a premium. Sabella often deployed Messi in a deeper position. He might find the ball a bit easier there, but he was further from goal once he had it. In the semifinal against the Netherlands, Messi was shadowed effectively by Nigel De Jong and then Jordy Clasie.
On Sunday, he started behind one forward rather than two but still had lots of ground to cover when the ball came his way. And there were significant stretches when it didn’t. None of his four shots was on target, he was late arriving on a couple of counterattacks and he saw two promising first-half crosses cleared from danger after runs down the right. Messi’s best chance came in the 46th, but his left-footed shot whizzed across the face of the German net and past the far post.
Sabella refused to respond directly to a post-game question concerning Messi’s fitness, saying that he thought his captain had an “extraordinary” tournament and deserved the Golden Ball award handed by FIFA to the World Cup’s top player. Indeed, Messi led the competition in scoring chances created (21) heading into the final, a testament to his skill and efficiency. But that’s hardly a statistic they’ll be singing from the stadium terraces in Buenos Aires, and the glum look on Messi’s face as he accepted that trophy was clear indication that his dream had been dashed.
He described it in Saturday’s Facebook post.
“My dreams and my hopes are being fulfilled due to the hard work and sacrifice of a team that has given everything from match one,” he wrote. “We want to win, and we are ready.”
He could have made it easier for the public and the pundits by scoring a couple goals on Sunday and carrying the more important hardware back to Buenos Aires. There’d be a three-way tie for GOAT. But it already was pretty simple for Messi, who’s famously shy and the polar opposite of the outspoken, effervescent Maradona. He doesn’t play for the history or the trappings. He's been known to sulk when benched at Barcelona, which can happen during a game that’s out of hand or meaningless. He simply wants to be on the field.
“The only thing that matters is playing. I have enjoyed it since I was a little boy and I still try to do that every time I go out onto a pitch. I always say that when I no longer enjoy it or it’s no longer fun to play, then I won’t do it anymore. I do it because I love it and that’s all I care about,” he told ESPN's E:60 in an interview prior to the World Cup. “I want to be world champion but not to change the perception of others towards me or to achieve greatness like they say, but rather to reach the goal with my national team, and to add a World Cup to my list of titles.”
Some Argentines feared his loyalty lay with Barcelona, or even Spain, where he moved at 13. His goalless 2010 World Cup (when Maradona was the coach) didn’t help. Messi suffered from a growth hormone deficiency as a child, and his family was unable to find an Argentine club willing to pay for his treatment, which cost more than $10,000 per year. The Catalans offered, so he left. He owes Argentina nothing but has continued to profess his love for his country. He’s already been capped more than Maradona and still has years left to play.
“I believe he’s in that pantheon. But he was there before,” Sabella said Sunday. “He’s been there for quite a while already, in the pantheon of the big ones.”
Germany coach Joachim Löw said he told substitute striker Mario Götze during the brief break before extra time, “Show the world that you’re better than Messi and that you can decide the World Cup." Götze decided it, scoring the game’s only goal on a brilliant volley in the 113th minute.
But no one believes he’s better than Messi. He’ll never come close. Lifting the World Cup is about far more than a given shot, a single game or the bounces during a month-long tournament. Champions are forged in the long term through persistent work at the grassroots and league levels and a focus on culture and player development.
Löw said Sunday that Germany’s route to the trophy started in 2004, the year he and Jurgen Klinsmann took over Die Mannschaft and Messi made his senior pro debut. The talent and depth on display in Rio was a decade in the making. As Germany accepted the trophy, Götze held up the jersey of injured winger Marco Reus, who many considered the team’s most dangerous player. He missed the tournament. Götze was a substitute. The man who passed him the ball, Andre Schürrle, also was a reserve. He’d relieved Christoph Kramer, who was the replacement for late scratch Sami Khedira. Messi has nowhere near that reservoir of talent with which to work. His silver medal is the reflection of a whole lot more than his (in)ability to master the moment.
Messi will move on. The next game will be the most important of his life. His legacy may be murky for some, but that’s the fun of sports. Those who want to debate it can do so. Those who are happy to let it go and are able to relax -- or sit on the edge of their seat -- and enjoy the remaining years of one of soccer’s most transcendent, exciting careers also can do so.
Messi will keep on motoring.