It was written, it was meant to be, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
As his rivals tumbled out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup one by one, Lionel Messi saw his chance to emulate a national hero of years gone by, captaining his Argentina team to the final and lifting the trophy himself.
But Messi missed his chance by the narrowest of margins with a defeat to Germany in extra time in Rio de Janeiro—the heart and homeland of his nation's biggest enemies—and in so doing has also missed out on a chance to end one of the biggest debates going: Does he really deserve to be considered the greatest football player of all time?
Momentary Hero, Consistently Peripheral
Moving through the tournament, Messi indisputably lifted his side past three challenges in the group stage. At no point did Argentina look like the fearsome, all-out-attack outfit that viewers were led to believe were ready to conquer the globe.
Behind enemy lines, Gonzalo Higuain stuttered and faded, Sergio Aguero picked up a customary injury and even Angel Di Maria was sporadic at best in his final-third impact.
It was left to Messi again and again not to produce sumptuous, virtuoso performances, but to eke out every possible instance of momentary quality, to be a decisive factor and make sure Argentina progressed. A captain by example, not by words, Messi still led his side through the mire.
He had the winning goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina, a last-minute winner against Iran and two more goals against Nigeria in a 3-2 win. Coming out of the group stage, Messi was troubling the top scorers, was keeping pace with Brazilian hope Neymar and indicated that he was capable of taking on the burden of carrying the nation.
Switzerland had him tied down for almost 120 minutes, but he still broke free once and provided the telling ball to Angel di Maria's strike that sealed their passage to the last eight.
But the final against Germany saw no such moment of magic. His walking off the ball, his merely fleeting appearances in matches, the lack of visual stimulation in dragging his team-mates along with him...all that would have been perfectly acceptable had he managed another of those moments, those telling impacts, those decisive contributions.
Messi couldn't deliver on the greatest stage of all. Was it fitness, form, mental issues or a simple lack of support against good defenders?
Time has shown us that it doesn't matter. In a World Cup final, you win or you lose:
Messi: "This was a chance to give the fans some joy after all the sadness. Golden Ball is not important, all I wanted was to lift the cup"— barcastuff (@barcastuff) July 13, 2014
Messi on Golden Ball: "I just wanted to win the World Cup. This award means nothing to me now"— Daniel Edwards (@DanEdwardsGoal) July 13, 2014
Golden Ball Farce
Yes, he was decisive for Argentina, and no, they quite possibly wouldn't have made it through to the final without his interventions, but the Adidas Golden Ball is the award for the best player in the tournament.
Messi was not that; not even in the top four or five players contending for the award. And yet, he did not leave the Maracana empty-handed.
A FIFA-inspired consolation prize, or a nod from the sponsor? A wish to have a present participant accepting the award at the appropriate time?
Whatever the reasoning, Messi won it. Few agreed with the decision, and it left a slight tinge of the ridiculous or incredulous as he stepped up to receive his award:
Giving Messi the golden ball is really a disservice to him. He'll be 31 at the next World Cup, can't be at all satisfied until he wins— Clark Whitney (@Mr_Bundesliga) July 13, 2014
No, Messi wasn't the best player in the tournament, but it was obvious he would win Golden Ball. 4 MOTM awards, dragged his team to final.— Dan Colasimone (@ArgentinaFW) July 13, 2014
Messi wins Golden Ball. Erm...think even Messi knows it isn't really deserved.— World Cup Pundits (@WorldCupPundits) July 13, 2014
What Status Does the World Cup Give?
There are those who refuse to countenance a player being among the greatest of all time if his hands have not held aloft the Jules Rimet trophy or the FIFA World Cup trophy.
Others will say consistent domestic (and Continental) form and achievements are more of a marker for the longevity and superiority of a player, rather than whether or not he had the good fortune to be born in the same country and in the same era as another group of good players.
An individual's thoughts on the matter likely influence whether Messi can rightly be considered as one of the game's all-time best, or even the best.
Messi: Greatest of all time?
There can be no debate whatsoever that he is one of the best players on the planet at the current moment in time, and cross-generation comparison is always a heated—and ultimately futile—discussion topic.
But what Messi did have was an opportunity to render all such differences of opinions completely moot.
Had he been able to perform, had he been able to drag the entire nation one more time over the line, that golden statue would have been his to hold aloft.
Like his last-ditch free kick in the final, though, Messi's performance was disappointingly mundane, lacking in the thrilling execution he has provided so often before—and it has cost him the right to an entirely undisputed seat in the pantheon of the footballing gods.