A version of this originally appeared on Eurosport, July 2014
The moment couldn’t have carried more historical weight, and couldn’t have been more pressurised.
It was what the entire World Cup final came down to, and some have already argued Leo Messi’s entire legacy.
The Argentina number-10 stood around 30 yards from goal. His team were 1-0 down to Germany with just one minute left on the clock, and just one kick left to save them. The free-kick was in a similar position to his group-stage goal against Nigeria, but in drastically different circumstances.
Given the stakes of an equaliser at that point, a successful strike would have meant everything; a miss would have left him with absolutely nothing.
The latter was what Argentina ended up with. Rather than gloriously curl the ball into the top corner, Messi sent it high into the air over Manuel Neuer’s goal. His chances of winning the 2014 World Cup followed it into the sky. Instead of confirming his eternal genius with one wondrous final act in the most historic of fixtures, he instantly saw all the old questions return.
The latter, really, is ludicrous.
The very fact a single kick could have produced such extremely contrasting reactions displays the immense expectations onMessi. It also emphasises how great he is, especially after a tournament that would have been superb by anyone else’s standards.
He created more chances than anyone else and came so close to creating history.
As such, it’s worth taking a step back. That kick, and the earlier 47th-minute chance, were not just about winning the World Cup – at least not for Messi.
They were about providing a debate-ending statement. Had he scored, and gone on to win the trophy, it would have left him with a career that was simply incomparable among football’s immortals.
Unlike virtually all of the rest of them from Diego Maradona to Alfredo Di Stefano, Messi only lacks one major trophy. The World Cup was the last one he had to win.
In that regard, he failed with his last act. That can’t be disputed. It will stand against him.
He also failed with the earlier act that was much more damning. Just moments after half-time, Messi was put through by Gonzalo Higuain but could only succeed in putting the ball wide.
The most troubling aspect was that, unlike the Nigeria goal and the pass for Angel Di Maria against Switzerland, this was an inversion of everything that had gone on before in this World Cup.
Messi was now missing by inches when previously he had maximised the most minimalist of circumstances. It adds greater edge that it was on the more exacting of stages, the one where it meant the most.
As a result, this was a repeat of 1990 rather than 1986. Instead of replicating Maradona in Mexico 28 years ago, this was a re-iteration of Italia 90.
There were flashes of genius, one big miss, and then Germany winning it late on.
It’s often forgotten Maradona actually missed a big penalty in the semi-final shoot-out of that tournament, and that he didn’t actually win that much else beyond the 1986 World Cup other than two Serie A titles.
This is not to excuse Messi’s display, but to point out that his career has always been almost the inverse of Maradona’s, with the parallels between this World Cup and 1990 the only real meeting point.
It was really only the parallels in age, location and talent that called for the 1986 comparisons before the World Cup but the key was that it would have been a crowning moment.
That never arrived, despite so many bejewelled displays, from the strike against Iran to the passes for Di Maria.
Consequently, Messi’s career is even more comparable to Johan Cruyff’s than Maradona’s. He has been dominant and utterly devastating at club level, but hasn’t yet made it any further than a defeated final with his country.
That is still incredible company to keep, a fine level to reach. His manager Alejandro Sabella put it best.
“As for his reputation, he is in that pantheon, but he was there before. He has been there for quite some time.”
That shouldn’t be forgotten. Messi may have missed big chances tonight, but he was the major reason his team were in that situation. He has also scored huge goals before, not least in two separate Champions League finals.
Of course, this was by now the trophy he wanted above all.
He made that perfectly clear, particularly with the miserable face put on when going up to collect an ultimately meaningless Golden Ball award.
It said so much that he didn’t care, with the almost comically posed photos adding an element of farce to a defeat some seem to consider a tragedy in the context of his career.
It didn’t have the perfect ending, but no player has the perfect career.
Messi has come far closer than most.
That should not be forgotten, even if it is the misses that will ultimately remain in the memory from this World Cup.
He may not have proven he is the greatest, but there should not be a single doubt that he is a great.