‘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,’ commented Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona on compatriot Lionel Messi’s Golden Ball award for player of the tournament at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Unusually for Maradona, at least in recent times, it was a comment that was actually met with general approval and agreement in the wider footballing fraternity. It seems fair to say that the decision, by FIFA’s Technical Study Group (whoever they are), to award Messi the Golden Ball has not been a popular one, with people’s reactions spread out on a scale that starts with moderate disapproval and extends through to seething anger. This, to me, seems a little unfair as his performance in the tournament should at least put him in the frame to win an award that is, in the most basic terms, nothing but an attempt to quantify that which is unquantifiable.
The easiest way to make a case for Messi is to run through the events of his World Cup chronologically. So, obviously, we must start with his Man of the Match award in the first game against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The game finished 2-1 to Argentina: the first goal coming after a Messi set-piece was inadvertently turned in by the Bosnian defender Sead Kolašinac, the second was scored by Messi himself to round of a brilliant move that he started. Messi was clearly the player that had the most impact on the outcome of this game and was the difference between Argentina getting three points versus one or zero.
The second game followed a similar narrative as Messi scored the winning goal from range in injury time to rob Iran and give Argentina the three points. Arguably Romero played a greater role, by making crucial saves to keep Argentina in the game, but the genius of Messi cannot be denied. The final group game, against Nigeria, again features Messi as the Argentine hero as he scores two of their three goals to ensure that Argentina came out on top in a game that finished 3-2. He didn’t manage to bag the winner in the game but I’d argue that his long range free-kick makes up for that.
Meanwhile his leading contenders for the Golden Ball had also been busy. Robben was running riot against Spain and Australia, whilst James Rodriguez was putting in a series of dazzling performances for the Columbians in group C and Müller had butchered the Portuguese. Robben, mainly for his humiliation of the then Champions of the World, probably showed the most flair and provided the most entertainment of the three but it is seriously hard to argue that anyone contributed more towards their teams progression from the Group Stage than Messi.
This moves us on to the Round-of-Sixteen and the incredibly dour Argentina v Switzerland game. This was a truly dreadful game lit up deep into extra-time by one moment of magic, predictably provided by Lionel Messi. It’s hard to argue that this was a classic performance by the man but even so the skill to beat the Swiss midfield and then the pass, so beautifully weighted that Di Maria did not even have to break stride in order to slide the ball home with his favoured left foot, was the main difference between the two teams. This means that Messi had been the main reason that Argentina had won all of their first four games. Despite Robben’s contribution against Mexico and Rodriguez’s stunning goal (and game) against Uruguay neither they nor anyone else in the tournament had been that crucial for their team.
Admittedly his performances in the Quarter-Final and Semi-Final were a less influential but, by the end of these rounds, it was clear that no single player was going to turn in a string of performances in the ilk of Zidane ’06 or Maradona ’86. This means that Messi had put together a string of good performances that had been vital in ensuring Argentina’s progression to the final. When compared to his two main rivals still involved in the tournament at the semi-final stage, Robben and Müller (Rodriguez being unable to prevent Columbia from knocked-out courtesy of a brutal Brazilian performance in the Quarter-Finals), Messi stands up well. Particularly versus Robben as Messi, in stark contrast to the Dutch, took responsibility for his side’s progression from the semi’s, via penalty shoot-out, by standing up and taking the first penalty for his country.
In the Final, the game that many seem to have marked as the moment that would define the man, he did play well but unfortunately missed his best opportunity and probably the opportunity that would have ended this argument. On top of this Germany won which led many to assert that Müller or Neuer should have been awarded the Golden ball. Both of these players would have been worthy recipients although I would contend that Neuer had less to do than Messi and that Müller, despite scoring more goals, had less of an impact on Germany’s tournament than Messi.
Ultimately I think that Messi has been judged an unworthy winner of the Golden Ball due to the comparisons people have made between his World Cup form and his club form; clearly he has not performed as effectively for Argentina as he has for Barcelona. A lot of this appears to be as a result of his fitness levels but, you must also consider that, heat maps have shown that he was playing a far deeper role for an Argentina team that was unable to give him the ball nearer to the opponent’s goal. When his performance are taken in the context of the World Cup, rather than the context of Messi’s career, I think that Messi has to be included in the top bracket of players at the tournament and that to name him the most effective is not necessarily wrong.