World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi's mortal moment keeps him one step short of compatriot Diego Maradona's greatness

The World Cup was just beyond the reach of the Barcelona player on Sunday night

It was the bitterest of consolation prizes, not least because even Lionel Messi knew, deep down, that he did not deserve it. When he put that final free-kick way over the bar his first reaction was an endearing smile, as if to suggest: “See, I’m mortal after all.” But when the Argentine picked up Fifa’s Golden Ball award for the best player of this World Cup he looked disappointed, and sheepish. James Rodriguez, Arjen Robben and a clutch of Germans were all better candidates and Messi looked well aware of it. “I don’t care at all about that prize, only lifting the trophy matters,” he said.

His coach, Alejandro Sabella, said he thought Messi deserved the award, “because he played an extraordinary World Cup, he was a fundamental factor in the team making it to the final”. But Diego Maradona felt the award had been made at the behest of sponsors and was embarrassing for Messi. “I could see that he didn’t want to go up and collect it. I would give heaven and earth to Leo, but when marketing people want him to win something he didn’t [deserve to] win, it is unfair,” said Maradona.

Read more: Messi suffers humiliation of passing trophy twice
Match report: Germany 1 Argentina 0
Maradona: Messi won award because of 'marketing'
Video: Germany win fourth World Cup

The script was meant to include Messi winning the Golden Ball, but only after leading Argentina to victory as Maradona did in 1986. Failure re-opened the old debate as to whether Messi matches his compatriot.

The answer has to be no. It is not entirely fair to suggest a player must shine in a World Cup to underscore his greatness; George Best and Alfredo Di Stefano never played in one, Stanley Matthews was 35 when he made his World Cup bow. But Messi plays for a country that has won it twice and is always a credible contender.

Manuel Neuer of Germany holds the Golden Glove trophy as Lionel Messi of Argentina holds the Golden Ball trophy Manuel Neuer of Germany holds the Golden Glove trophy as Lionel Messi of Argentina holds the Golden Ball trophy  

And the comparison with 1986 is unavoidable. Then, as now, Argentina were decent, but far from exceptional, except for their star player. A World Cup has never been dominated by one player as much as it was in Mexico. Then, Maradona scored five and helped make five of Argentina’s 14 goals. When it mattered he delivered, scoring twice in both the quarter-final and semi-final and creating the winner in the final. This time Messi scored four and helped make two of Argentina’s eight goals, underlining his importance to the team, but the goals were against Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Nigeria and Iran. In the knockout stages his goals dried up, and so did Argentina’s. They scored two in seven hours’ play.

Surprisingly, given that Argentina’s defence was seen as its weakness, they conceded only once in those matches, but that partly reflects Sabella’s approach. He focused on defence and hoped Messi, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero would turn scraps of possession into goals. With all four affected by injury, or its after-effects, they largely failed.

 

Even troubled by injury Messi scored 48 goals for club and country this season, taking him past 400 in 550 games. Add the number he has created, and the style in which he has scored many, and there is the argument for his greatness.

There are, though, two aspects that make Maradona stand apart from Messi. He dazzled in an era of brutal tackling of which he was a frequent victim, and he would seize games by the scruff of the neck, turning ordinary teams into great ones. It was not just Argentina, look at Napoli. In an 88-year existence they have won two Serie A titles and one European trophy. All during Maradona’s six-year spell at San Paolo. He also achieved this despite a wild private life and terrible injuries.

Maradona with the trophy in 1986 Maradona with the trophy in 1986  

Only Pele matches Maradona, and the argument over which was better will never be settled. This World Cup confirmed Messi belongs in the next tier of football’s Pantheon with the likes of Johann Cruyff, Di Stefano and Franz Beckenbauer. There is no shame in that, none at all.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory