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?
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower