This tournament - the best I’ve ever seen - has always circled around Lionel Messi for me.
It started after writing about my run in with Diego Maradona – the man who’s World Cup heroics for the albiceleste will always be what Messi is measured by. He’s also the coach who many believe misused Messi’s talents in 2010, resulting in a scoreless tournament for one of the greatest goal scorers in the world (although Messi was still clearly the engine of the Argentine offense four years ago and was on the shortlist for the player of that tournament).
But just as important to me was the Messi narrative coming into the tournament. A 28-goal, 11-assist effort for a Barcelona team that was the runner-up in La Liga and bowed out in the semi-finals of the Champions League was deemed a loss of form. Cristiano Ronaldo ended Messi’s 4-year run as player of the year in 2013 and Luis Suarez and Ronaldo had all the momentum.
Then I was given the responsibility to cover Group F for The18 – with Argentina headlining a group that included, what can you say, “upstarts” Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. That assignment became a chance to talk about Messi’s four goals and late game heroics. His team’s tactical approach started with packing in their defensive third and expecting the magician to find a goal pretty much on his own. And, Messi came through time and again.
His scoring, coupled with Spain’s disastrous performance, shifted the narrative. After 6+ years leading the best national team in the world, suddenly Messi’s Barcelona running mates on the Spanish team looked like shells of themselves. With Barca just starting to integrate Neymar, Messi’s ability to drag the aging and tired legs of Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, etc. as far as he did this season began to look more like a testament to his greatness and not an indictment of his performance.
And, while the knockout round did not bring with it the goals of the group stage, Messi was the undisputed focal point of Argentina’s offensive attack - setting up his teammate Ángel di María for his game winning goal against Switzerland in the Round of 16, and creating moments of genius that were a little more subtle in nature. Ultimately, the threat of magic from Messi enabled Argentinian coach Alejandro Sabella to focus his team on defending, resulting in 450 scoreless minutes for the albiceleste prior to Mario Goetze’s Cup-winning goal.
Then, the Final. It was billed as "Man vs. Machine" as the magician came up against a team that clearly had superior overall talent and had just destroyed the tournament hosts, while Argentina suffered through 120+ scoreless minutes before dispatching the Dutch in penalties. Once again, di María would miss the match, leaving Messi without his most dangerous running mate. It seemed that it would all be on his feet once again: and I couldn’t have been more excited to see it.
But, alas, the experience of watching Messi on this day felt as off as seeing the dark blue of Argentina’s alternate jerseys rather than their traditional light blue and white vertical stripes.
Early on it looked like the magic might be there. Messi seemed to have an advantage on the right hand side, outrunning the German defense on two deep runs and creating a few dangerous moments.
Then, in the 47th minute, a chance that The Flea should have buried. A clever run and a perfect pass. Another perfectly handled first touch to bring the ball onto that magical left foot with space in front of him. But, the shot that everyone expected to find the side net, curled away from the German keeper but also ultimately away from a precious one-goal lead.
Again in the 75th minute, clever touches in tight spaces on the right hand side. Then an exploratory jaunt across the top of the box, searching, searching for the tiny bit of room he needed to unleash a shot. But, as with his earlier chance, the expected bending shot that would evade the keeper’s reach and find its home into the far corner of the net instead started well wide and wasn’t able to curve back to the promised land.
When Germany went up in the 113th minute, it was clearer than ever that Messi alone might be able to will this overmatched squad to penalties. But, a rare header went over the crossbar. And, in the final moment, Argentina’s last chance at salvation would come from the feet of the diminutive superhero. 123 minutes in. A free kick from 25 yards out. Surely an impossible task for anyone but this man. But, once again, a poor strike that sailed well over the goal.
One wonders how much was taken out of Messi as he was asked to carry the Argentinian offense single handily. While everyone on the albiceleste seemed drained, Messi in particular looked spent. His typical, um, lethargy on defense was exaggerated. The energy to focus all his power to strike the ball when the magic moment presented itself seemed gone. As his father indicated on Saturday, it "looked like his legs weighed 100 kilos.”
So, once again, Messi will be seen as failing where Maradona succeeded. But, Messi's task in this World Cup was not that disimilar from his challenge in La Liga this season. The opposition's defensive focus on Messi in this and prior games created multiple chances for Argentine attackers, but they came up empty time and again. Higuain, Aguero, and, most painfully "Rat Tail" Palacio failed to close the deal on golden chances in this final. This team scored 8 goals all tournament - half scored by Messi and another assisted by him. Other teams could focus all their efforts on Messi and dare his teammates to make them pay. Ultimately they couldn't - and it meant that The Flea did not hoist the trophy or the monkey off his back. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Ronaldo was a part of a Portugal team that was drubbed 4-0 by the eventual champions and Suarez...well you know.
And while his selection as the Golden Boot winner is justifiably controversial, I think it is also not without some justification. Remove Messi from this Argentina team and they never make it out of the Group stage, let alone within a better first touch from Palacio of winning. I find it somewhat prophetic that Messi earned a shout-out from none other than Lebron James after his assist against Switzerland. The lesson of this World Cup is similar to that of this year's NBA Finals. On the hardwood, James, the undisputed best player on the planet could not carry a lesser team past the well-oiled machine of the San Antonio Spurs. On the pitch, Man (or Flea) was not enough to overcome Machine. And, much like Lebron, Messi is a transcendent star that many seemingly look for every opportunity to take down a notch.
And, ultimately, as much as I hoped for Messi to find his moment of glory, this is the way it should be. Team should overcome individual. And as James has played his cards and will try and earn honor in his hometown of Cleveland by winning a championship in the coming years, Messi's quest to become beloved in Argentina will also go on...and I for one hope the result is different four years from now. But, like Lebron, he's going to need some help.