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.

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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.

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