Clutching a golden trophy and facing rows of photographers after last night’s World Cup final, Lionel Messi couldn’t raise a smile.
The honor of being named the soccer tournament’s best player wasn’t enough for the 27-year-old striker to overcome the disappointment of missing out on the one major trophy he hasn’t collected. The Barcelona player -- a record four-time World Player of the Year and a multiple winner of European and Spanish titles -- has faced accusations that he couldn’t be ranked alongside Pele and Diego Maradona until he won the sport’s top prize.
Messi led Argentina to its first final in 24 years, but the South Americans’s dreams were crushed by Germany. Substitute Mario Goetze’s goal in the second period of extra time at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium gave the Europeans their fourth title.
“At this moment I don’t care about this prize,” Messi said. “Only lifting the trophy matters. We deserved better after the game we played. I’m hurt for losing the way we did. We were close to penalties but that’s history.”
Messi has pushed Barcelona to a period of unprecedented success. Since his debut as a teenager in 2004, the forward has scored 243 goals in 277 games and Barcelona has secured six league titles and three Champions League crowns.
With Argentina, his performances and results have been less impressive. His goal in the team’s opening match with Bosnia on June 15 was his first at a World Cup for 623 minutes of tournament play. That failure led some, including Michel Platini, head of European soccer’s governing body, to say Messi needed a World Cup win to ensure his legacy would be sustained as long as Pele, the only player to win three World Cups, and Maradona, who captained Argentina to its second championship in 1986.
“Messi will always be great with or without winning a World Cup —- but the World Cup, it’s something special,” Platini, a three-time European player of the year, said in 2012. “The World Cup will stay in the mind of the people.”
Maradona said Messi wasn’t the World Cup’s best player, saying the selection was a “marketing” decision and Messi himself didn’t appear to want to receive the prize.
“I could see that he didn’t want to go up and collect it,” Maradona, who was named best player at the 1986 World Cup, told television program De Zurda. He said tournament top scorer James Rodriguez was a more worthy winner.
Messi’s face adorns billboards across Argentina as sponsors, including the country’s government, made him the symbol of the team’s efforts to bring the trophy back across the border. In Argentina’s first four games he was the decisive player, scoring match-winning goals against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria and producing a burst that led to the winning goal as the July 1 second round game with Switzerland headed for a penalty shootout.
The reliance on Messi was made plain by the team’s tactics, with players constantly looking to give him the ball. Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella described Messi as the team’s “water in the desert” after a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Belgium. In the next game Messi was hounded by as many as three defenders as Argentina needed a penalty shootout to overcome the Netherlands and make it to the final.
“As for his reputation, he is in that pantheon,” Sabella said of Messi. “But he was there before. He has been there for quite some time.”
Against Germany, Messi got chances but couldn’t get a goal that would have rewarded the thousands of Argentines who flooded across the border to see him lift the trophy.
With Germany dominating possession -- it would finish with 20 percent more of the ball -- Messi’s touches were limited, he did get chances. Five minutes before halftime he weaved past two challenges to take on Manuel Neuer. He lifted the ball over the advancing goalkeeper but German defenders cleared the ball.
Just after the break Messi had his best chance. Getting a pass from Gonzalo Higuain, the 5-foot-5 (1.69-meter) forward nicknamed “The Flea” raced onto the ball and once again beat Neuer only to see the ball go narrowly wide.
German coach Joachim Loew said his team’s high pressure game meant Argentina couldn’t get Messi into dangerous positions as often as in previous games.
“They went straight to Messi and Messi wasn’t able to start running,” Loew said.
At the final whistle, Messi and his teammates could only look on as Germany’s players celebrated. Messi then stood in the same position besides the red-shirted game officials for several minutes, looking into the distance, and not speaking, as he waited to collect the prize as the best player.
Argentina fans, who serenaded their hero with the chant “Come with me, sing with me, Messi’s going to lead us to the Cup” were just as stunned.
Sabella, who may step down as Argentina coach according to his agent Eugenio Lopez, said Messi was a deserving winner of a prize selected by a panel of experts, headed by former France national team manager Gerard Houllier.
“I think he deserves it because he played an extraordinary World Cup,” Sabella said. “He was a fundamental factor in the team making it to the final, along with everything done by his other teammates. But he deserves it, quite sincerely. Yes.”