And then there was one. In a tournament frequently illuminated by South American No. 10s, only Lionel Messi now remains. He will have the opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats when Argentina face Germany in Sunday’s final in Rio de Janeiro.
A World Cup that kicked off with a double from Neymar in Brazil’s 3-1 victory over Croatia and featured a wonder goal from the consistently excellent James Rodriguez may yet have its final chapter written by the little Argentinian.
Perhaps only in Eastern Europe is the No. 10 shirt treated as mythically as it is in South America. To wear that number is to be your team’s primary creative outlet—to be a leader in the attacking half of the pitch. It is not a distinction given cheaply; the right to wear it must be earned.
Colombia enjoyed their best World Cup, and much of their success was down to the performances of Rodriguez. That Carlos Valderrama—the wonderfully coiffured playmaker of the Colombia side of the early-to-mid-'90s—was content to appoint Rodriguez as his successor says a lot for the quality of the 22-year-old.
Rodriguez and Colombia may have been eliminated at the quarter-final stage, but he still leads the top-scorers chart going into the final two matches of the tournament. His three goals and two assists helped Colombia through the group stage with a 100 per cent record, before he scored two more in the round-of-16 victory over Uruguay.
His first in that match was a strike of irregular beauty.
Brazil just about got the better of Colombia in the last eight, but it was Rodriguez who scored the Colombian goal, from the penalty spot, in a 2-1 defeat. After such an impressive tournament, Real Madrid are now being heavily linked with a move for the Monaco man, as per Marca.
The match between Brazil and Colombia also brought Neymar’s tournament to a premature and regrettable end when he suffered a fractured vertebra following a challenge from Juan Zuniga.
The Brazilian No. 10 was the poster boy of the tournament, his every touch met with shrieks that would not be out of place at the concert of a popular boy band. As far back as four years ago, when he made his international debut against the United States, he had been touted as the future star of Brazil’s home World Cup.
As Sam Wallace of The Independent noted:
He (Neymar) is no weakling but his success is largely dependent on technique, guile and pace rather than being able to fall back upon any great physical strength; either natural or developed.
All bony elbows and knees, he still resembles the adolescent prodigy for whom the seniors’ kit is a size too big.
He dealt with the pressure as well as can be expected for a 22-year-old. He scored four goals during the group stage but was not as influential thereafter, struggling to extricate himself from the close attention of opposition defenders.
Neymar was often tasked with being Brazil’s No. 10, 11, 8 and 9, such was the lack of support from his team-mates. He was the one ray of light in an otherwise uninspiring side, and it was no surprise that he was heavily marked—stopping Neymar meant stopping Brazil.
Messi is no stranger to such an approach, and he has been dutifully tracked by opponents throughout the World Cup. Yet he has still produced some brilliant moments, including the decisive goals in each of Argentina’s first two group-stage matches and a double in the 3-2 victory over Nigeria.
It was Messi’s pass that set up Angel Di Maria for the match-winning goal against Switzerland in the round of 16.
On Wednesday, he was set upon by two or three Dutch players whenever he received possession. He didn’t have a telling influence on the match, but he did manage to wriggle clear of his initial challenger on a number of occasions.
Lionel Messi: Completed more successful dribbles (10) against Holland last night than any other player has in a World Cup 2014 match #arg— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 10, 2014
Simply having Messi on the pitch is sufficient for the majority of Argentina’s opponents to become more defensive, wary of providing him with too much space to work in. Argentina were blistering in transition during the qualifying process, and that they have been unable to replicate those performances in the World Cup itself is testament to the respect afforded them by their opponents.
But this is far from a one-man team.
Javier Mascherano has been one of the tournament’s best players, expertly patrolling the space in front of the back four; Ezequiel Garay has been strong and assured in the centre of defence; and Di Maria has provided an energetic link between midfield and attack. Argentina have been a solid and hard-working unit throughout the competition.
“I feel proud to be part of this squad,” Messi said after the win over Netherlands, as reported by Football Espana. “They are all phenomenal.”
Just as Diego Maradona didn’t win the World Cup by himself in 1986, neither will Messi have done so if Argentina emerge triumphant on Sunday evening.
He does, however, now have the opportunity to equal Maradona’s tally of one World Cup against the same side that the team of Maradona, Jorge Burruchaga, Jorge Valdano, Jose Luis Brown and Sergio Batista defeated in the final of 1986.
Germany represent tough opposition, but if Argentina’s defence can maintain the solidity that has seen them concede just three times in six matches so far—and not once during the knockout stages—there is every chance that Messi will produce a moment of magic sufficient to take them to victory.
The great Uruguayan No. 10 Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored in the decisive match of the last World Cup in Brazil back in 1950. The torch was passed from him to Pele, onward to Maradona and now to Messi.
The stage is set for Messi to wrap up a World Cup in which South American No. 10s have shone the brightest with a match-winning performance on Sunday.