2014 World Cup Golden Ball

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Lionel Messi’s selection as the 2014 World Cup’s best player raised eyebrows, but Jeremy Lim considers the argument in his favour.

Nothing with Lionel Messi mentioned ever passes quietly. When the world learned the Argentina captain was named as the World Cup’s Golden Ball winner, they couldn’t help passing it off as another FIFA farce. Even Diego Maradona, normally Messi’s staunchest advocate, couldn’t help but be disparaging.

They pointed to Thomas Muller’s better individual statistics, and how the German won the World Cup. They highlighted James Rodriguez’s explosiveness in the final third - the Colombian of course finishing as the tournament’s Golden Boot winner, having netted six times in just five games. Messi scored four goals in eight matches. All of them arrived in the group stages.

Statistically, Messi paled next to his opponents for the prize. But the 27-year-old displayed other attributes that cannot be quantified. He represented an idea. The idea Argentina might just reclaim football’s greatest prize, ending a wait stretching back nearly 30 years. A placid-looking Albeceleste regularly turned to him for inspiration. His mere presence on the pitch was an uplifting one for the team.

For years, his country had been seeking out the inner leader within the diminutive forward. It stepped forward in Brazil, emulating Maradona’s former authority on the pitch. Messi’s winning contributions while the team were still searching for an identity in the early stages of the World Cup arguably do elevate him to a similar plain as the nation’s deity-like figure.

There wouldn’t have been the remotest of chances Argentina would have progressed nearly all the way without his epoch-making goals. Of the six goals the CONMEBOL qualifying leaders netted in Group F, five came as a result of their skipper’s direct impact. Messi’s free-kick from the left in the opening tie against Bosnia gave Alejandro Sabella’s men their dream start, when Sead Kolasinac put the ball into his own net.

If that breakthrough was regarded as too prosaic for a man of Messi’s talents, his second period moment of magic certainly wasn’t. A quick give-and-go with Gonzalo Higuain ended with Messi evading a pair of lunging tackles before curling a rocket into Bosnia’s net. The relief appearing on his face as he celebrated after ending a drought of 623 minutes in the World Cup was as evident as the joy.

A strike from similar range broke the back of Iran’s resistance one minute into stoppage time next, giving his country qualification to the knockout stages. By the time La Pulga fired in twice for Argentina to down Nigeria 3-2, Messi had taken his tally in his last 23 games for Argentina to 24 goals.

The constant presence of the mercurial striker didn’t stop there as he assisted Angel di Maria’s next-round winner against Switzerland, before some mesmeric skill in midfield ended with Higuain notching past Belgium in the quarter-finals. Yet even while his decisiveness dwindled later as the sheer weight of expectation began to take effect, the Barcelona man’s quiet style of leadership, his generosity, sacrifice and the confidence he evoked from the rest of the squad rank him foremost in the World Cup’s influence charts.

Some of their talisman’s stardust evidently failed to rub off on an Argentine cohort lacking inspiration as they bowed out in the final to Germany, with the man being discussed himself missing a gilt-edge opportunity. But even though being crowned best player of the tournament was scant reward for the disconsolate Messi, Brazil 2014 will be remembered as the moment Maradona’s heir came closest to emulating him on the world stage.