(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)
Features, articles and reports
(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)
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.
A version of this originally appeared in the Evening Standard
In terms of an ending and a climax, the delivery just couldn’t be faulted.
Mario Goetze’s magnificent finish was entirely fitting of the type of goal that should win a World Cup, from the quality of the control to the athleticism of the turn through to the elegance of the strike.
It was, without putting too fine a point on it, absolutely world-class.
It was also the perfect distillation of everything that ultimately won this World Cup for Germany: one of their most vibrant young players absolutely maximising the talent that the most sophisticated coaching structures had given him, to eventually provide true end product.
Again, you can’t fault the technical delivery of that ending.
As a consequence of all that, however, it wasn’t exactly the most unpredictable ending. There was a sense of inevitability aboutGermany’s deep infrastructural changes ultimately ensuring the team landed on the right result.
That affords a grand scale to this great victory, but doesn’t necessarily mean it was in-keeping with the repeatedly epic nature of this competition’s narratives.
This World Cup had arguably more stunning storylines than any other in history, but this was a break from that, at least in the sense of how expected that finish was.
In that regard, the winning goal did fit the final, because this was also more reminiscent of recent tournaments.
For all the unique grandeur of the Maracana as a special venue, it was not quite a special World Cup final.
It was rather mid-ranking in the history of these games.
Although nowhere near the negativity of 1990 or 2010, it didn’t come close to the coruscating crescendo of 1966 or 1986. The initial pace and openness gave way to tension and a gradual decline dynamism.
What made it stand out was the atmosphere and the setting, as well as the winning goal. Goetze was probably the only player who truly seized the final but it said much that he was a substitute, benefitting from fresher legs.
As he went on, manager Jogi Loew had a specific message for him.
“’Okay, show the world you are better than [Leo] Messi and can decide the world Cup.”
He certainly did the latter. And while the first part of Loew’s statement was clearly a stretch in order to provide motivation, it was certainly true that Goetze ended up more more decisive on the night.
Messi, after all, had the opportunity to put Argentina ahead long before game. That 47th minute represented another inversion of the tournament’s general trends. After a campaign in which the number-10 had maximised the smallest margins, he missed by inches when presented with acres of space for someone of his talent. It should really have been the moment.
Instead, having been put through by Gonzalo Higuain, Messi attempted to swerve the ball beyond Manuel Neuer’s reach but only succeeded in swerving it beyond the post.
It should not affect the legacy of one of the greats, but it is impossible to overlook the fact it affected this final and this tournament.
Rather than serve as the campaign in which Messi put forward a decisive argument in all the debate about the greatest player of all time, we saw another story.
Germany brought to fruition one of the greatest football projects of all time.
That also harked back to the trends of the last few tournaments.
With Spain finally deposed, Germany at last did what they long suggested. They replaced the Spanish at the pinnacle, finally stepping into a breach.
There was no more grand obstacle. They now represent the benchmark.
Of course, most of their players would rightfully balk at the idea that this was some kind of fait accompli. They worked hard for this, and that showed in every trying moment of this final.
“From the beginning we knew we would not have only 11 players on the pitch,” Loew said of what was such a taxing game. “We would need 14, so everyone had to be in top shape during the tournament. Everyone had to be ready. People can’t always play for 90 or 120 minutes at their maximum level. You saw that today. Argentina were becoming more and more tired, so we had players like [Thomas] Mueller and [Andre] Schurrle who could go deeper.”
The emotion certainly went deep, as Schurrle himself indicated.
“This is the best moment of my life. I had to cry because I was so overcome. I couldn’t stop it. It was always a dream to become a world champion.”
They have made it reality, and there is no denying they are a great champion.
The trajectory of this team makes that all too clear. A young side have learned along the way to crown a generation.
“We’ve been together now for 55 days,” Loew said. “We started this project 10 years ago, so this is the result of many years’ work: beginning with Jurgen Klinsmann. We’ve continued that work and our strength has been our constant progress. We’d not made this ultimate step before, but champions do what they will do. We believed we’d win it, and we worked a lot to achieve it. If anyone deserves it, then this team with Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Podolski, Mertesacker… they deserve it. This team deserves it. We showed the best performances for seven matches of all the team in this tournament, but we’re looking back over 10 years of preparation and hard work. This team has developed a spirit which is unbelievable.”
That made the ending, however, all too believable.
There was no unpredictability, only inevitability.