In Defense of Lionel Messi’s World Cup

Right, now that we’ve recognized the sheer importance of what the Germans have achieved in winning their fourth World Cup, strap yourselves in, because this is going to be a very long and rant-filled ride. If you get bored and want someone to blame, direct your wrath at the morons who occupy Twitter, messaging boards, and the British tabloid press for putting me in this mood.

Pictured: the majority of the internet after the World Cup finished

From the beginning of the buildup to the 2014 World Cup, the entire tournament, rightly or wrongly, has been about Lionel Messi. Widely regarded as one of the most gifted players to have ever touched a football, the Argentine captain has always had a “yeah, but…” attached to his staggering success at Barcelona: “yeah, but he doesn’t perform for Argentina.”

There’s two sides to this. On the one hand, it’s correct to note that his form for Argentina pre-Alejandro Sabella was pretty sporadic. At the 2006 World Cup, as a teenager who forced his way into Jose Pekerman’s side, he was a frequent substitute but not a regular starter, and was on the bench when Argentina lost to Germany on penalties – Pekerman’s retelling of the game is that he had planned to substitute Messi on, but an apparent injury to Juan Roman Riquelme meant that he couldn’t. In 2010, he was shackled by Diego Maradona’s chaotic misunderstanding of tactics and the need to play in a deeper, playmaker-oriented role. On the other hand, Messi is also unfortunate to be Argentinian, meaning that his international performance will constantly live in the mythologized shadow of Diego Armando Maradona, a man beloved by Argentines for near single-handedly winning them their second World Cup in 1986 on the back of legendary performances against England and Belgium in the quarterfinals and semifinals. This is the shadow that every potential successor to Maradona’s crown in South America has to grow out of.

Lionel Messi’s 2010 World Cup was blighted by how bad of a coach (and how ridiculously good of a player) Diego Maradona was.

2014 looked to be Messi’s best chance to do so: since Alejandro Sabella took over in 2011, the team has been moulded around Messi, with players that got in his way (Carlos Tevez) dropped ad the team built around his style. In qualifying, it paid huge dividends: Messi finished with ten goals, Argentina topped South American qualifying, and were drawn in a relatively easy group with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria. In the group stages of the World Cup, the narrative of this being Lionel Messi’s moment only grew: the winning goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina after a magnificent solo run through the opposition defense, the injury-time winner against an Iran team that Argentina had struggled to break down, and two goals against Nigeria to ensure that Argentina topped the group. In the round of sixteen, Messi’s solo slalom through four Swiss defenders freed up the space for Angel Di Maria to score deep into extra time to give Argentina the win.

But then something happened to the narrative from the quarterfinals onwards: Messi didn’t score against Belgium, though he came close in the dying minutes and was instrumental in disrupting their midfield and orchestrating the chance that led to Higuain’s ninth-minute goal. In the semifinal, he was largely ineffective as the Dutch piled defenders in the box in an effort to stop him. In the first half of the final, Messi ran riot against Germany’s slow back-line, but ultimately failed to score due to both good last-ditch defending and absolutely appalling finishing from Argentina’s forwards. In the second half, he missed a golden opportunity to put Argentina ahead before his influence gradually diminished over the course of the match, as a Germany with far greater depth gradually overpowered the exhausted Argentines. Despite this, Messi was eventually awarded the Golden Ball for the best individual player at the tournament.

This is not the face of a man who gave a shit about the Golden Ball

This is where things get weird. The critics and haters jumped out of the woodwork almost immediately, and from odd places. Argentina legends Mario Kempes and Diego Maradona both blasted the decision as a marketing ploy (Adidas, who sponsor the Golden Ball, also endorse Messi and market him quite extensively). FIFA President Sepp Blatter confessed surprise at seeing Messi collect the Golden Ball from him. My twitter was immediately flooded by intelligent and astute pundits proclaiming that Messi didn’t deserve the award. The Daily Mail went even further, showcasing “five players who deserved it more than Messi” with profiles of Toni Kroos, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Javier Mascherano, and James Rodriguez. The argument was that Messi had been ineffective during the knockout rounds and wasn’t as deserving of the award, given that Argentina didn’t win the World Cup.

This statement, ladies and gentlemen, is fucking absurd.

I’ll start by dealing with the notion that there were other players who deserved it more: Yes, James Rodriguez finished as top scorer. No, that does not mean he was the best player. The most exciting? Perhaps. The biggest revelation of the tournament? Almost certainly. But the top scorer hasn’t been awarded the Golden Ball since the 1990 World Cup – the two are very rarely linked indelibly. Hell, Thomas Muller didn’t even make the Team of the Tournament in 2010. Moreover, if we apply the same logic given to Messi (he didn’t win the thing, therefore he isn’t the best player) then Rodriguez is out. Colombia were beaten in quarters by a Brazil side that ruthlessly employed Hack-a-James tactics and their own naiveté in the match. Arjen Robben was brilliant against Spain, Chile, and Mexico, but he was effectively silenced by Javier Mascherano in the semifinal and didn’t impose himself on every match he played in to the extent that Messi did (more on that below). He also didn’t win either. The Bronze Ball seems appropriate given Robben’s contributions to his own side’s third-place finish. Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller (the latter of whom got the Silver Ball) both won the World Cup, but Germany’s effort relied far more on a cohesive, collective, team effort rather than the singular brilliance of a particular individual: key individuals stepped up at different times – Kroos in the semi against Brazil, Hummels in the quarter, Muller against Portugal, Goetze in extra time of the final. No one individual on the German side stood out beyond the others, and it seems odd to arbitrarily pick one of them to single out for unique, singular praise. I could maybe also see an argument for Philip Lahm winning the Golden Ball as a symbolic recognition of his multidimensional role as the leader of this incredible Germany side, but I’m against symbolically awarding things.

Pictured: the only compelling argument that someone else deserved the Golden Ball ahead of Messi.

The only argument I will entertain on an “other people deserved it more” level is that Javier Mascherano was more vital to Argentina’s progression through the knockout rounds, as he expertly marshalled the defense and contained the offense of Argentina’s opponents –particularly Robben in the semifinal. But even Mascherano’s brilliant performances owe a great deal to the effect that Messi had on Argentina’s opponents: terrified of what the world’s most brilliant player could do against them if afforded an iota of space, Belgium and Holland were both far more defensive against Argentina than any of their previous opponents – Switzerland sacrificed three quarters of their midfield to man-marking him and it still didn’t work. Argentina’s defense improved because the vital midfield supply-line to opposition forwards was cut by the perceived need to contain Messi. Nowhere was this more true than against Holland in the semi, where Sneijder and De Jong were both tasked with keeping the forward in check. Simply by being on the pitch, Messi made Argentina better and their defense more resolute. Such fear of an opposition player hasn’t been felt in a long time – Zidane had that aura very briefly in the 2006 knockout rounds, but not to the same extent that Messi does. But to too many, it all comes down to the lack of goals in the knockout rounds.

Part of this is positional: Argentina don’t have an Andres Iniesta or Xavi to act as the creative force. With Angel Di Maria injured in the quarters, this meant that Messi had to effectively drop back to act as Argentina’s creative force, playmaker, metronome, and scorer of goals. It’s not his fault that Rodrigo Palacio and Sergio Aguero put in two of the worst forward performances that I have ever seen in the World Cup Final, despite Messi gifting each of them a high number of chances to kill the game off. Maradona had five assists in 1986 in part because Jorge Valdano was a highly accomplished winger who was good enough to finish off the chances that El Diego created for him. With Di Maria injured, Aguero’s form injured, and Palacio worse than useless, Messi didn’t have that same luxury.

The Dutch sacrificed any hope of offense by assigning half their squad to man-mark Messi in the semifinal. No other player has such a singular impact on an opponent’s strategy

But ultimately, the argument that he was ineffective and anonymous in the knockout rounds is statistically bullshit: By the end of the tournament, Messi had created the most chances (27), completed the most dribbles (47, the most in a tournament since Maradona in ’86), scored, assisted, or created more than 80% of Argentina’s goals, effectively got them through the group stages, octos, and quarters, and backed up Argentina’s defense through the sheer terror that his presence inspires in opposition managers. He was Man of the Match four times – more than any other player, and often seemed to be dragging an average Argentina side to the finals.

If any other player in history did that at a World Cup, we’d be all over them. If the player who created the most chances, completed most dribbles, was MOTM four times, and dragged an average team to the finals was named Zinedine Zidane, we’d hail him as god’s greatest gift to humanity since the invention of the wheel. If that player’s name was Cristiano Ronaldo, Jamie Redknapp would explode from the sheer force of the orgasm he’d have while the British press would rush to proclaim him as being better than Pele. If that player’s name was Steven Gerrard, he’d be carried through the streets of London, knighted, and then offered a seat in the House of Lords. If it was Pirlo, or Xavi, or Iniesta (who registered 0 goals and 2 assists at Euro 2012), or basically anyone else, they would be a shoe-in for Player of the Tournament.

But apparently when that player’s name is Lionel Messi, that’s not good enough.

This is an utterly absurd standard to hold a player to, even one as brilliant as Messi. By his own standards, he had an average tournament, but he also made very clear that the only thing that mattered to him was winning the World Cup. But that shouldn’t impact our own view of the man. Far too many bellends have been far too eager to rush to proclaim his tournament “a failure”, to tarnish his entire legacy as a player. The GuardianThe Guardian, for christ’s sake! – suggested that Messi had never really put in a big-game performance, as if somehow breaking basically every record there is to break by age 25 somehow makes him a shit player because he missed the back of the net by mere inches in the World Cup Final and somehow couldn’t single-handedly beat Germany with his best attack partners out of the squad or out of form.

Take away the name Messi from the stats, and his performance at this World Cup is very, very, very good. Not nearly at his ‘score more goals in a calendar year than Liverpool, Stoke, and Everton combined’ best, but still very good. Even better when you consider the year he’s had: repeated struggles with muscle-injuries, accusations of tax fraud, constant hounding by the Madrid press who never miss a chance to peddle a false accusation, the death of his former roommate (Argentine journalist Jorge Lopez) in a car crash in Rio the morning of the semifinal, and exhaustion from a long and demoralizing club season where everything at Barcelona seemed to go wrong at precisely the worst time. Putting up the numbers that he did, while dealing with all of that, is nothing short of incredible. In terms of importance, of impact, and of achievement, Lionel Messi was the best player at the World Cup.

It’s a shame that journalists, the internet, and Madridistas are all too short-sighted, petty, and stupid to realize that.

Later: Messi against the myths

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