It was an honor that felt like an insult, an accolade that Lionel Messi had no desire to either accept or celebrate. The world’s best player had just been named the World Cup’s greatest performer, and he wanted no part of it.
For Messi did not come to this tournament to take home the Golden Ball; he came to collect the golden trophy that anoints the World Cup’s champion, one that now rests in German hands for the fourth time.
Messi stood glum on the dais as he was presented with his individual accolade, which is awarded to player of the tournament. In a bout of irony, he did so standing next to Manuel Neuer, the German goalkeeper he had been unable to beat as Argentina slipped to a 1-0 defeat in soccer’s biggest game of all, courtesy of a late winner from Mario Goetze.
Sometimes the Golden Ball feels like a prestigious prize of special stature. Paolo Rossi won it in 1982, Diego Maradona in 1986, Romario in 1994. But those accompanied victories, went hand in hand with glory.
“I think he deserves it because he played an extraordinary World Cup,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said. “He was a fundamental factor in the team so that we could make it all the way where we are today. … He deserved it, quite sincerely, yes.”
Although Messi was good during Sunday’s final at the Maracana Stadium, he wasn’t great. And that greatness, the sort of which he has shown so many times in the past, was what Argentina needed.
“A shame we can’t offer the fans the [World Cup] trophy,” Messi said. “We leave with our head up high, we have peace of mind. I’m proud to be Argentine.”
Messi didn’t fail. He didn’t miss his lines. He wasn’t outplayed or outclassed. But he was stifled, restricted, hurried, pushed into occasional error and denied space by a classy and incredibly organized German team.
Thus, the spark of magic – the stamp of eternal greatness – was missing on this emotional night when history beckoned. Messi will be 30 the next time the World Cup rolls around and might be a little past his peak. There will be other contenders, some pretenders, some the real deal, snapping at his heels.
This was his chance, his best chance, not just to be one of the greats of the game, but one of its handful of all-time legends.