RIO DE JANEIRO - Argentina captain Lionel Messi ended the World Cup final with a golden trophy in his hands, but it was not the one he wanted. Moments after the final whistle at the Maracana stadium and with Germany's jubilant players still cavorting on the pitch, Messi was called up to receive the Golden Ball award for the tournament's best player.
He flashed a perfunctory smile, but it was with the knowledge that Argentina's defeat had prevented him from cementing his place in the pantheon of the truly great. "The truth is it doesn't interest me at this moment," he admitted later. While the 27-year-old has won everything there is to win -- and broken every record o break -- with Barcelona, the World Cup final offered him the opportunity to definitively seal his legacy in the sport.
Pele, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo all scored decisive goals in World Cup finals, while Diego Maradona created the goal that settled the 1986 tournament. But Messi found himself upstaged by Mario Goetze's sensational extra-time winner for Germany. He will be haunted in particular by a glaring opportunity early in the second half, when with only Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to beat, he whipped his shot wide. It was to be his only clear sight of goal, and his failure to seize the chance continued a narrative that had taken root earlier in the knockout phase.
Whereas Maradona seemed to grow with each match as Argentina surged to the title in 1986, scoring braces against England and Belgium in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, Messi appeared to shrink. After dazzling in the group phase with four goals, he made the winning goal for Angel di Maria against Switzerland in the last 16, but in his own encounter with Belgium he flickered only sporadically, and in the semi-final against the Netherlands he was anonymous. Messi has now gone four games without scoring for the first time under the stewardship of coach Alejandro Sabella, misplacing his gift for making a difference at precisely the wrong time.
His failure to take chances in the final suggested that the fatigue of which his father spoke recently may have weighed more heavily upon him than he has yet admitted. "It is a very demanding tournament and it drains everyone physically," admitted Sabella. "He is already among the greatest of all time." With 354 goals in 425 games for Barcelona, many of them works of art, Messi's greatness cannot be denied, but as he himself has admitted, there is no substitute for a World Cup winner's medal.
"I would give all my personal records to be world champion," he had told German tabloid Bild ahead of the final.
"I'd prefer to win the World Cup than the Ballon d'Or. As a player, winning the World Cup is the biggest thing there is. It's something you dream of as a youngster and that dream never fades away." Whereas Netherlands successfully man-marked Messi during the semi-final, Germany opted to crowd him out. Bastian Schweinsteiger, his scourge during Germany's 4-0 quarter-final win in 2010, was a constant irritant, and on the two occasions when Messi managed to burst free in the first half, he could not pick out a team-mate.
The moment thousands of Argentines in the Maracana had been waiting for arrived a minute into the second half when Messi was released by Lucas Biglia, but he overcooked his shot, rattling it wide of the right-hand past. An injury-time free-kick from 30 yards offered one last improbable chance, but he hooked it over the bar. Where Maradona broke down in tears after Argentina lost to West Germany in the 1990 final, Messi looked merely numb. He will be 31 by the next World Cup and may never get a better chance to win it.