Hollow honours for Lionel Messi
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Lionel Messi's thirst for personal honours is usually unquenchable. Here was another, the Golden Ball, the gong given to the best player at a World Cup.
It had always been said that to match history's best he needed to star at a finals and yet he accepted the award with the enthusiasm of a motorist receiving a parking ticket. His gaze had been caught by the trophy behind it -- the World Cup itself, which may be beyond his reach forever.
Messi, despite the little-boy-lost facade with which he received his unwanted award and loser's medal, is 27, with thousands of miles on the clock, even after redrawing his game to be about bursts rather than the perpetual motion of his Barcelona glory days. Russia in 2018 is a far and distant prospect.
"The significance of winning the Golden Ball means nothing ... the only thing I wanted to win was the World Cup."
"The significance of winning the Golden Ball means nothing," Messi disappointedly told reporters in the bowels of Maracana. "The only thing I wanted to win was the World Cup."
In the dying moments, Germany having finally claimed the lead, there was a final opportunity for Messi to rise. As ever, his teammates stepped aside so he could take the free-kick from a fair distance away. The stands of the Maracana beckoned the ball, to hoots of derision among fans clad in either shirts of Brazil or Germany.
At the other end of the stadium, Argentina's fans were as spent as their team. As they peeled into the streets, their "Bad Moon Rising" anthem was being thrown back at them by jeering locals.
A week of traumatic pain for Brazil ended in enjoyment of the Germanic taste of Schadenfreude. Messi had failed to emulate Maradona, whom Argentina's interlopers have spent the tournament proclaiming better than Pele.
"He deserves [the Golden Ball]," said Alejandro Sabella, a coach whose opinion is probably not valued by many people in Argentina right now. "He played an extraordinary World Cup and was a fundamental factor in the team. Messi has always been one of the greats."
The truth is that Messi could not emulate either of the World Cup's greats, Pele or Maradona. Both played in two finals, and though Maradona lost to Germany in 1990, he beat them, too. Both dominated tournaments -- Pele at 17 in 1958, Maradona when wearing the same number 10 shirt and captain's armband as Messi.
Maradona never scored in a final, but so far, neither has Messi, and he blew a chance to do so at the beginning of the second half.
Thereafter, he was almost interchangeable with the rolling cast of hopeless strikers that Sabella played around him. Gonzalo Higuain's wafer-thin belief went with a first-half miss, and it looked as if Messi was affected by the same malaise. Rodrigo Palacio and Sergio Aguero fell into the same trap as well.
Messi's semifinal performance in Sao Paulo was a carbon copy -- a bright start sliding to increasing listlessness, and later on, that usually unimpeachable ball control failing him. Many players lost their footing on the Rio pitch, but it still registers as a surprise to see Messi look so mortal, prone to the same mistakes as the rest.
Pictures of him vomiting on the pitch suggested that either nerves or sickness might have curbed his genius. Whatever the reasons, the Maracana saw little of the Messi the world once expected. His hopes of reclaiming the Ballon D'Or, the yearly award he made his own for four years, have faded, too.
The wisdom of the Golden Ball being decided before the match must now be questioned; there were shades of Zinedine Zidane winning the same award in 2006 on the night he was dismissed from a final for a supreme act of violence. The FIFA Technical Study Group, a grandiose-sounding body, had chosen a player whose best performances occurred in the tournament's group stage, and who could not repeat that form at the business end.
Brazil 2014 has had no outstanding star; giving the award prematurely to Messi suggests that FIFA's wonks were trying to second-guess the final's result. His reaction to receiving it suggested he was not confident in his primacy, either. James Rodriguez, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos and Javier Mascherano could all lay claims as strong; it was Mascherano who assumed leadership of Argentina in both the semifinal and final when Messi began to disappear from view.
Messi's clear lack of sustained mobility suggests he has yet to fully recuperate from the muscle problems that have affected him during the past couple of years. He was also not helped by an often gruesome supporting cast, and certainly not his coach's mistakes.
Removing the effervescent Ezequiel Lavezzi at halftime, for what Sabella suggested were reasons of "changing the style" and to be "more offensive" should go down in World Cup history for their sheer ridiculousness. With Lavezzi charging on in the first half, Messi found space to make two runs into the deep that should have resulted in goals -- had his colleagues been better able.
A glorious pass played to Angel Di Maria against Belgium in Brasilia was the final sight of Messi at full capability. Di Maria suffered the injury that ended his tournament in chasing it down, robbing Messi of his most reliable foil, leaving him to do even more dirty work, of which his ailing physique was clearly not capable.
The World Cup had seen the best of Messi by the time he reached Rio, where he looked almost ashamed to be proclaimed as the best.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.