Author of the blog: Samik Adhikari
“Georgie Best, Johan Cryuff, Diego Maradona… they’re all getting outshone by this incredible little man…”
– Sky Sports Commentator Rob Palmer, Barcelona-Zaragoza, March 2010
Have you ever seen a man more sad with a golden ball in his hands?
Given my sad title, let me start on a positive note. What a world cup! Over the last 31 days, we have all had something to talk about. This world cup has produced everything – goals, drama, excitement, some fantastic moments, and a few controversial ones. It got off to a flying start (literally), produced amazing celebrations, had the most animated coach ever, produced great displays from the underdogs – the Chiles, Algerias, Costa Ricas, and kicked out powerhouses Italy and Spain in the group stage (No, dear football fans, England is not a footballing powerhouse).
I’ll start with the champions and give them the credit they deserve. What has been impressive about Germany is their consistency over the last 10 years in international tournaments. For ages, it seemed like they would be the golden generation that came so close and yet failed to win tournaments; that they had made a habit out of choking (aka the South Africa of football, for cricket fans). Their record before this triumph read – final in 2002, semi-final in 2006, final in 2008, semi-final in 2010, semi-final in 2012. At some point, they had to win it. This German side does not rely on a single player and truly embodies team spirit. If I had to pick a standout player, I would probably pick Philip Lahm. Pep Guardiola dubbed him “the most intelligent player” he has ever coached.
And amidst all the glory for Germany, and the heartbreak for Argentina, there was a curious decision made by FIFA. Lionel Messi, having missed his chance to match Diego Maradona in perhaps the biggest game he will ever play in his life, was getting ready to receive the Golden Ball – the award given to the most influential player in the tournament. Surely he did not deserve it, did he? Shouldn’t it have gone to the golden boy – Colombian James Rodriguez, who lit up the world cup with his wonderful performances, or another flying Dutchman Arjen Robben (flies for the wrong reasons, btw), who despite his theatrics, had surely dragged a mediocre Holland team into third place? What about Germany’s own Thomas Muller, the star with an incredible record of 10 goals in his two world cups so far? Or Brazil’s Neymar, who was the only shining light in a disastrous tournament for the hosts before his unfortunate injury.
So why exactly did Messi win the Golden Ball? Conspiracy theorists (like El Diego himself) blame it on Leo’s and FIFA’s sponsor Adidas who wanted it as a marketing gimmick. Others say it was a politically correct way of appeasing the traveling Argentina fans ready to riot after the defeat in Rio. People talked about his disappointing performances in the knockout stages, his inability to influence games, and so forth without really backing their claims with something concrete. Therefore, with the very little life that I otherwise have, I decided to compile some individual player statistics put together by http://www.whoscored.com/ and crunch some numbers. For anyone interested, they have already dubbed Leo Messi as their player of the tournament. I am going to tell the story from my side, and slightly differently.
I compiled individual player statistics on the four best players that majority believed should have won the golden ball – James, Neymar, Muller, and Robben. And, of course, Lionel Messi, to see how their individual statistics compared against each other. Among the compiled statistics were goals scored, assists, shots per game, successful dribbles, fouls drawn, number of key passes, completed passes, passing accuracy, accurate crosses, accurate through balls, accurate long balls, and man of the match award. I ranked each player from 1 – lowest to 5 – highest (the tie receiving equal scores) based on these 12 attributes and created an aggregate index (out of 60), which is the simple sum of the scores of previously assigned individual attributes. And here it is – Leo Messi, with the aggregate score of 46 beats any other contender by 8 points. The second is Neymar with 38 points.
Sure, this is too simple. How can I compare James or Neymar with Messi when they only played until the quarter-finals? But, that only makes the argument against Messi weaker because match for match, Messi’s stats were better than both of them up until the quarters. Neymar’s injury was unfortunate and I was heartbroken for him while James could not carry his team further. I am not going to throw around more sophisticated statistics around Messi. FiveThirtyEight has already done that and it is pretty darn good.
Social media is all about showmanship. And people come around every four years during the world cup expressing colorful (and equally annoying) opinions on the biggest sporting event in the world. And so do journalists. They create hype. In this world cup, the subject of the hype was Messi. Every article was about Messi’s turn to shine on the biggest stage, akin to Maradona’s 1986. And when Leo and his teammates missed three glorious opportunities to score in the final, the media found their scapegoat.
I have seen 99% of Lionel Messi’s games since the beginning of the 2008-09 season at Barcelona where he has since scored over 40 goals every year. He doesn’t simply score goals, but he scores goals like these, and these, and these. It is not only about goals though. Just watching him receive the ball and dribble past 2, 3, 4 players at a time gives you a sense of someone playing the game purely for its sheer enjoyment; not to show off, not to earn money, not to achieve individual heights, but simply to win those 3-4 seconds of the dribble or to score that one goal. He has been described by many the best player ever. What makes all that even more special is he plays it the right away. He never dives. He does not have fancy hair-dos. He does not give that many interviews. And above all, he plays the game selflessly, with the joy comparable to a 9 year old playing in the park on a Sunday, creating just as much for others as he scores for himself.
And yet, there seemed to be a blemish in his career. He has never quite lit up the international stage. Although he has scored more goals than Maradona did for Argentina, with the same number of games played, he has never quite performed in big international tournaments. So, 2014 was his chance to once and for all put an end to the argument. Messi started the world cup brilliantly. But it was quite evident from the first game itself that his team was not built to get the best out of him. Sabella’s tactics in 2014 was the exact opposite of Maradona’s “all attack no defense” philosophy in 2010. Argentina never held the ball quite well. And Messi’s biggest loss was Di Maria’s injury in the quarterfinals against Belgium. That meant he constantly had 3, sometimes 4 players marking him without another creative spark in the team.
Messi was amazing when he had the ball at his feet in this world cup (check the stats above), but even with it, he was short of options. Higuain, Palacio, Aguero, and to an extent Lavezzi had the most stinking of world cups. Argentina abandoned possession play after Di Maria got injured against Belgium. The biggest travesty to Messi not winning the world cup lies in the fact that Messi could not pass the ball to Messi.
If they had to give the golden ball to an attacking player, Lionel Messi is, even in his most withdrawn of avatar, better than any other footballer that played in this world cup. Personally though, the one player who deserved it more than him was Javier Mascherano. In what most people thought was the weakest point of this Argentina side before the tournament, Mascherano along with Garay and Zabaleta put in one after another shift of rock solid defending and tackling to make Argentina the best defensive side in the tournament. And somewhere within Mascherano is the answer to the only possible shortcoming in Lionel Andres Messi as a footballer. He does not show the same enthusiasm, passion, almost a crazy madman like drive to win. It is not a criticism of his commitment. Quite the opposite, rather. Because he does not have the same devil inside him that Maradona had, or Suarez has, to win no matter what. He could have gone down at least twice close to the penalty area in the final against Germany. Instead he decided to stay on his feet. He could have attempted a shot when clean through on more than one occasion. Instead he decided to pass. And there in lies the irony of Lionel Messi’s world cup. He wanted it so much that in the end he might have been too good for it.
Messi will be 31 in 2018 in Russia. His best chance of winning the world cup with Argentina might well and truly be over. It is heartbreaking to see the best player of our generation leave behind an incomplete legacy. Yet, take nothing away from Lionel Messi as a footballer and his quest to win the world cup for his country. For sometimes, as proven by Love in the Times of Cholera and Javier Bardem, even unfulfilled love can be romantic.