RIO DE JANEIRO – It was an honor that felt like an insult, an accolade that Lionel Messi had no desire to either accept or celebrate. The world's best player had just been named the World Cup's greatest performer, and he wanted no part of it.
For Messi did not come to this tournament to take home the Golden Ball; he came to collect the golden trophy that anoints the World Cup's champion, one that now rests in German hands for the fourth time.
Sometimes the Golden Ball feels like a prestigious prize of special stature. Paolo Rossi won it in 1982, Diego Maradona in 1986, Romario in 1994. But those accompanied victories, went hand in hand with glory.
"I think he deserves it because he played an extraordinary World Cup," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said. "He was a fundamental factor in the team so that we could make it all the way where we are today. … He deserved it, quite sincerely, yes."
Although Messi was good during Sunday's final at the Maracana Stadium, he wasn't great. And that greatness, the sort of which he has shown so many times in the past, was what Argentina needed.
"A shame we can't offer the fans the [World Cup] trophy," Messi said. "We leave with our head up high, we have peace of mind. I'm proud to be Argentine."
Messi didn't fail. He didn't miss his lines. He wasn't outplayed or outclassed. But he was stifled, restricted, hurried, pushed into occasional error and denied space by a classy and incredibly organized German team.
Thus, the spark of magic – the stamp of eternal greatness – was missing on this emotional night when history beckoned. Messi will be 30 the next time the World Cup rolls around and might be a little past his peak. There will be other contenders, some pretenders, some the real deal, snapping at his heels.
This was his chance, his best chance, not just to be one of the greats of the game, but one of its handful of all-time legends.
He toiled for 120 minutes, never lacking in effort or intensity. There was just no way through. There was the half-chance in the first half when he skipped through the defense and bore down on goal. That time it was Jerome Boateng clearing the danger for Germany.
Soon after it was Neuer, snuffing out a tricky cross. Then Philipp Lahm bustling into Messi's path, Mats Hummels crowding his shoulder, Bastian Schweinsteiger supplying a late tackle as he tried to wriggle free.
Even when there was space it was a tiny crack of light, enough to narrow the margin of error so that even Messi's precision could not keep up. There was one of those early in the second half, when Messi found the ball at his feet after a fine pass from Lucas Biglia but could not deliver the telling finish – firing a left-footed shot outside the far post.
It was hard for him to bear. He had learned from the experience of being shut down by the Netherlands in the semifinal and instead of going straight ahead he regularly drifted to the right to find some extra traction that was only occasionally there but usually not.
Late in the second half a dipping left foot shot flew just wide. He was running out of chances.
And, after Goetze had made the evening's decisive strike, it all boiled down to one moment, one final opportunity to salvage it all. A free kick was whistled Argentina's way, a couple of yards outside the Germany area, with time all but expired.
Argentina was done, unless – unless – Messi could somehow conjure something with that wicked left foot. He needed a moment of inspiration, a split second of magic. There is certainly no one more capable.
He didn't have to beat Neuer, but needed at least to get a shot on target, perhaps force a save that would be beaten out to a colleague.
It didn't happen. His effort skewed off his cleat, high, over the bar and up into the Rio night. Messi smiled a smile that gave him not a shred of joy. It was over.
When the final whistle rang shrill just a few seconds later to anoint Germany as champion it consigned Messi to a place in history that no man, no player, and certainly no icon, wants to occupy.
Fair or not, losers of World Cup finals go down in eternity as little more than a footnote, a fate that Argentina, so game and spirited, did not deserve but will long be burdened with.
"He was there before," Sabella said when asked if Messi is one of the greats of the game. "Not just tonight. He's been there quite a while in the pantheon of the big ones [with Pele and Maradona]."
As Germany celebrated, Messi and his colleagues stood and applauded gamely, sportingly. It must have been torture for him. He took a deep breath, then another. He hugged Schweinsteiger as the German came over to offer sympathy.
No less an authority than Messi's own father had said this week that soccer's little maestro was "exhausted" in advance of the biggest game of his career.
Maybe he was, but even at the end, he didn't look it. Lionel Messi just looked beaten.
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