‘Special Prize’

Lionel Messi won the ‘Golden Ball’ in Brazil 2014. It could be argued that Messi was the best Argentine player on view at the tournament, but to honour him as the standout player of the event is debatable. The names of other contenders — Colombia’s James Rodriguez or the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, for example — better fit the bill. By Ashwin Achal.

At most school competitions, the awards ceremony accommodates a “special prize.” This is usually given to a well-loved student, who for some reason failed to win the contest outright. This recognition provides a mild comfort to the recipient, as there is always a nagging doubt that the authorities went the extra mile to placate him/her.

At the concluding ceremony of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, a similar scenario played out when it was announced that Lionel Messi had won the ‘Golden Ball’ award. It could be argued that Messi was the best Argentine player on view at the tournament, but to honour him as the standout player of the event is debatable. The names of other contenders — Colombia’s James Rodriguez or the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, for example — better fit the bill.

Rodriguez, the find of the tournament, single-handedly powered his side to its best ever World Cup finish (Colombia exited in the quarterfinals). The No. 10 helped Colombia exceed expectations, and an instinctive chested-down volleyed goal against Uruguay in the last-16 provided the exclamation point. With six goals, he won the ’Golden Boot’ (for the highest goal-scorer) — an award decided purely on an objective basis.

Much like Rodriguez, Robben established himself as the go-to man for his side. His electric runs, time and again, rattled the defence, and created opportunities. While the 30-year-old did receive flak for going down in the box at the slightest of touches, it was obvious that his presence was vital to Holland’s third-place finish.

In the group stage, Messi scored four goals to stay in the spotlight. But, the run ended in the knockout rounds. In the semifinal against the Dutch, he went an entire 120 minutes (including an extra-time of 30 minutes) without touching the ball in the opponent’s penalty box. Rival coach Louis van Gaal ensured that Messi was tightly marked — as he has been all through his career — and rendered him ineffective.

In the same match, the Barcelona star was not helped by the defensive tactics employed by his own coach. Alejandro Sabella’s shuffle prompted mercurial Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho to state that Argentina looked imbalanced, and that Messi paid the price for it.

This switch, Mourinho said, wore Messi down physically, who was now forced to play on the break. His overall statistics did not make for good reading either: three measly shots on target in three knockout matches. Apart from an assist to create Angel di Maria’s goal against Switzerland in the pre-quarterfinals, he was relegated as a bystander in the rest of the fixtures. A penalty conversion in the last-four was the only other highlight — a poor return for a player of such high standards.

The most scathing analysis came from countryman Diego Maradona. Maradona, an ardent Messi supporter, said: “I would give the heaven and earth to Leo, but when marketing people want him to win something he did not deserve to, it is unfair.” He went on to say that television footage of the award ceremony indicated that even Messi felt that he did not deserve it. His claims that Messi benefited through the vested interests of sponsors, however, took the argument a little too far.

There wasn’t much sympathy from Mario Kempes too, another Argentine legend. The recipient of the same award in his country’s victorious 1978 World Cup campaign was blunt in his view. “I think that Messi was not up to standard during the World Cup,” he said in an interview to Radio America. “He may have scored four goals in the first few games, but I don’t believe he showed that he was the best player in the world by the end of the tournament. Argentina needed Messi like a fish needs water, but he needed to be more involved. We lacked his footballing brain.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter admitted that he was “a little bit surprised” when the four-time Ballon d’Or winner walked up to collect his trophy.

Messi’s staid expression at the awards ceremony revealed that it was hard for him to even stay in the ground after the morale-sapping defeat. It was clear that Messi would have traded the ‘Golden Ball’ for the World Cup title, and he was, unsurprisingly, quoted by a Spanish newspaper as saying: “Right now, I do not care about the prize. I wanted to take Argentina to the World Cup title for all the people.”