There are football greats. Then there are football gods. His chance came to make the leap from great to god. He will likely never get a better one. He probably knows it.
Lionel Messi stood motionless over the free kick. He had been given one final opportunity to pull Argentina level in the last minute of extra time. It was positioned perfectly for him to curl the ball over the German wall and send the World Cup final to penalties and a nation into raptures.
The watching world held its breath. Could Messi pull one last magic rabbit out of the hat - the way only Messi can. The ball flew over the wall but just kept climbing. The moment, and likely Messi’s soccer immortality had passed: Germany 1, Argentina 0.
Lionel Messi leaves Brazil with the Golden Ball, as the World Cup’s most influential individual, and a runners-up silver medal. He also leaves with a heavy heart in the knowledge his professional career resume may forever remain incomplete.
He is the world’s best player. Messi has proved it time and again, but the Argentina captain may never get his hands on the one prize he cherishes above all other — the FIFA World Cup itself. In four years time, Messi will be 31-years-old and approaching the twilight of an extraordinary career.
Footballing history is full of great players who never won the sport’s biggest prize. Many more, considered among the elite of their generation, never even qualified. George Best, for example, was probably the best player never to compete at a World Cup.
So what are we to make of Messi’s legacy? Where will his final resting place be on the list entitled “football all-time legends”? We should, of course, acknowledge his playing days are far from over — but it’s doubtful Messi will ever again impact a World Cup to such an extent.
Can he lay claim to being compared to those who have touched what he has not? Pele won three World Cups with Brazil in three different decades. Diego Maradona led Argentina to glory in 1986 and returned his country to the final four years later in Italy. Messi, in comparison, has one runners-up medal.
It all could have been so very different. Had Higuain, Palacio or Messi himself helped themselves to just one of numerous chances spurned inside the Maracana, Messi would have been handed the trophy and Argentina would be world champions on Brazilian soil — the final humiliation for the crestfallen hosts.
Messi’s body language said more than any words could describe. He knew history was calling and how close he came to lifting Argentina back into the winners’ circle like his illustrious predecessor. The 2014 World Cup was his time to step out of Maradona’s shadow forever.
In the wake of defeat to Germany, Messi’s moment in the sun may be gone forever.