The World Cup final could have created the legend of Argentina's no. 10, but it was not to be
Rio de Janeiro: For 27 years, give or take a few, Lionel Messi’s life had built up to this day. His career as a footballer had not been in doubt, though his schooltime backup plan had been to be a PT teacher. After a certain age his own greatness had not been in doubt either; the various scouts who watched him, the Barcelona suits who took a punt on an underweight kid with magical feet, his father—his agent—who reared him through those difficult early years, the teammates who saw the genius first hand at the training sessions. And Messi himself, who would frequently set aside his trademark humility to tell anyone who cared to listen that he would be great.
It was not a boast, more a statement of fact, and in every aspect he had achieved that. The medals and awards bore testimony to that, as did the adoration of his army of fans in Barcelona and right across the globe, Bangalore to Boston. There was one blank space on his CV, though, and 2014 was the year it was to be filled. The systems were in place. Just as Barcelona arranged its team structure to make the most of Messi, so too did Argentina—finally—build its team around its best player. He was given the captain’s armband to boot, one of Alejandro Sabella’s first decisions after taking over as manager. All he needed to do was take the tournament by the scruff of its neck, make it his own.
The story of Messi’s Argentina exploits is forever intertwined with those of his predecessor in the no. 10 shirt, his former national coach and his occasional bete noire, Diego Maradona. He was everything Messi was; and a World Cup winner to boot. Maradona is loved by his countrymen because he delivered the World Cup to them. Those who recall the 1986 World Cup will recall the force of nature that was Maradona, not necessarily scoring every goal, but inspiring every win. For a country seeking to bounce back from the humiliation of the Falklands defeat, that was the perfect tonic. Maradona, Argentina fans will tell you, sweated blood for his country; Messi sweats his blood for Barcelona.
Messi responded from the very first match. He adjusted his style, not scurrying all over the pitch but biding his time; he drifted in and out of games but his four goals in the group stage—four times the number of goals he’d scored in two previous tournaments—suggested the radar was switched fully on. They were vital goals, most important the injury-time winner against Iran and his pass to Angel di Maria, in the penultimate minute of extra time, to beat Switzerland in the round of 16. Then he seemed to hit a wall. And he never really recovered.
On Sunday, faced with the same opponents as Maradona was in that 1986 final, Messi provided some glimpses of the genius; a couple of dazzling runs when he switched into overdrive, leaving defenders in his wake. A couple of through balls, in space that only he could see.The fans responded, suspending their Maradona chants and bowing before Messi as he came to take a corner. But when he came face to face with Manuel Neuer, he shot wide. With seconds remaining, he had one last shot at saving the match, a free-kick a few yards outside the German area. He’d done it many times before, stepping up to save the match, fuelled by that hatred of losing. Not this time; the shot was high and wide, the match was lost. Messi’s reaction was a rueful grin, a realisation of just what he had lost.
Once the whistle blew Messi stuck to himself, head down and hands on knees in sheer exhaustion. He was called up to receive the award for the best player but seemed lost in his own despair, holding the trophy at arm’s length as though it was carrying some communicable disease and leaving the stage at the first opportunity. As he trudged off he would have heard the Argentina fans resuming their chants of Diego, Diego.
Where does he go from here?
The Barcelona team, which was built around him but predicated on the passing strength of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, is believed to have reached the end of its cycle; Madrid and Munich are the new power centres. Barcelona itself, under its new coach Luis Enrique, will have to rethink its basic gameplan to factor in Neymar and their new signing Luis Suarez.
Sunday’s loss will not diminish Messi’s greatness but it will not add to it. What it might do is inspire him to plot his way back; that could be the ultimate in greatness.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor, ESPNCricinfo, and a Mint columnist.