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Did Lionel Messi really deserve to win the Golden Ball award?

Faiz Darvesh
ANALYST
17.81K   //    21 Jul 2014, 22:19 IST

Culminating fittingly in a spectacularly fought 120-minute battle between a consistent German side and an inspired Argentine one, the world’s largest sporting event had lived up to its hype and more. It had given everything a neutral fan or a lover of the game could have asked for. The drama, upsets, the comebacks… It was all there. And so in Mario Götze’s sublime winner in the 113th minute, the tournament had a fitting end. There was little, for the football fan, to complain about. That, for many a fan, would soon change.

It was the last few minutes of Extra time of the World Cup final. Messi stood over the dead ball – Argentina, trailing Germany by a goal, had won a free kick at a decent distance from the goal. If Messi scored from it, and Argentina went on to win the Cup, he would go down in the history books as the hero of the tournament and the best player of all time. However, that was not to be. As it turned out, the effort went well wide of Manuel Neuer’s goal and Germany ended up lifting the cup.

Lionel Messi – The winner of Golden Ball at FIFA World Cup 2014

Nevertheless, FIFA still chose to award Messi as the best player of the tournament. This decision to award the golden ball to the poster boy of football, Lionel Messi, raised many eyebrows. It came under criticism from several quarters. And if the issue wasn’t already hot enough, football legend and fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona added to it. The legendary footballer was vocal in his criticism of the decision, going as far as calling it part of a “marketing plan”. Maradona’s vocal criticism was just the beginning, as many other pundits followed suit, speaking out in criticism and giving their picks for the award. So much so that Lionel Messi himself spoke out saying that he does not want the Golden Ball.

In all fairness, these critics do have a point. That Messi has already achieved legendary status is irrefutable. He is, almost undeniably, the best player in the current generation; His four Ballon d’Or awards bear witness to that. But that is not what the Golden Ball is awarded for. It’s meant to recognise and celebrate the best player of the World Cup. And it doesn’t take much to figure out that the best player of our generation didn’t really have the best tournament in Brazil.

The knockout stage: Inconsistent performances

Surely, if the award was being decided at the end of the group stage, there is little contest. Four goals and four Man of the Match awards make Messi an almost unanimous choice for the award. However, the latter half of the tournament is the issue. Messi was a pale reflection of himself in the knockout stages. In the big games of the tournament, where it counted all the more, Lionel Messi failed to deliver. That isn’t to say that he played badly, but he was a far cry from the Messi that has terrorised defenders; from the Messi of the group stage. This drop in form opens up room for others to contend his position as the best player of the tournament.

The statistical argument

It is pointed out that Lionel Messi deserved the award for his contributions to the team as evident by the stats. 4 Man of the Match awards are surely worth consideration. Fair enough. Let’s look a little closer at the stats to analyse the argument. Following are the basic World Cup stats for Lionel Messi and a few other players to compare.

Player

Goals

Assists

Man of the Match awards

Lionel Messi

4

1

4 (BIH, IRN, NIG, SUI)

James Rodriguez

6

2

3

Thomas Müller

5

3

2

Arjen Robben

3

1

3


These basic stats do not seem to make a compelling argument in Messi’s favour. There is, however, one bit in Messi’s favour. Leo tops the charts in the number of “chances created”. Is that by itself enough to outweigh the better conversion rate of chances that the other contenders had?

The counter argument to that, however, is the calibre of opposition against which Messi flourished. All the four MOTMs he won came against relatively weaker opposition. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria and Switzerland were the four teams against which he was recognised as the MOTM. All the four goals he scored came against Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina, none of whom were in the top 20 of FIFA rankings when the World Cup began.

Perhaps, if the teammates around him were more clinical and supportive, the chances he set up could have lead to something, and he would have had more of an impact on the game, even continuing into the knockout stages.  That brings us to the next point…

Factoring in the team-mates

It has been argued several times, during this world cup and before, that Messi’s teammates let him down, causing him to underperform. And while that argument is in itself highly debatable, that raises another point. If excelling despite the team is a factor, then it makes James Rodriguez an even better candidate for the Golden Ball. After all, he’s performed consistently throughout the tournament, against bigger sides even, and without any “big names” in his team to support him.

The contenders

Lionel Messi vs Thomas Muller

The official 10 member shortlist for the Golden Ball announced by FIFA was as follows:

Angel Di Maria(ARG) , Javier Mascherano (ARG), Lionel Messi (ARG), Mats Hummels (GER), Toni Kroos (GER), Phillip Lahm (GER), Thomas Müller(GER), James Rodriguez(Colombia), Arjen Robben (NED).

Some of the names in the list can easily be ruled out of contention for the Golden Ball. However, there are those who, if they were given the award, wouldn’t surprise many. The three top contenders for the award, aside from Messi, are:

James Rodriguez (Colombia)

Maradona’s choice for the award, the stand-out performer and find of this World Cup, James Rodriguez consistently shone for Colombia netting a Golden Boot winning 6 goals in the process. The 23 year old star netted goals against the likes of Uruguay, Brazil and Ivory Coast. He almost singlehandedly contributed in carrying Colombia so far in the World Cup. His stunning volley against Uruguay also won recognition as the Goal of the Tournament. There is little that Rodriguez did not do for his national team. And having accomplished so much playing for a team like Colombia, without the abundance of star players that Argentina, Netherlands or Germany has, he is also my pick for the Golden Ball.

Arjen Robben (Netherlands)

The often injured Dutch maestro was seen on full flow in Brazil this world cup. And boy, did he have an impact! His three goals and 1 assist may not be seen as too many, however the Bayern Munich star had a fine tournament, leaving defenders all over the place. He is a serious contender for the Golden Ball given his contribution to the Dutch team.  

Thomas Müller (Germany)

The golden boot winner of 2010 continued from where he left off in South Africa. 5 goals including a hat-trick against Portugal have gotten his all-time World Cup goal tally to 10, that too at the young age of 24. He was the personification of the German game. The World Champions were consistent, ruthless in attack, resolute in defense and had the killer instinct to find and capitalise on chances. Müller was an integral part of it all. He definitely deserves a mention in this discussion.  

Fans’ opinion

The heart of the football world – the fans – were divided in their opinion on who should win the Golden Ball… Several polls were conducted, and while the opinion was not unanimous, it did show a significant disagreement with FIFA’s decision.

A poll conducted on Skysports indicated 64% of the voting fans did not feel the Barcelona star deserved to win the award. Goal.com also conducted its own poll, in which, 28% of voters wanted Arjen Robben to win the award, with Colombian James Rodriguez emerging as the second choice.

Conclusion

All factors considered, I am inclined to agree with Diego Maradona’s opinion.

It is not a question of Messi’s ability or his competence which he’s proved at the highest level. But the World Cup 2014 is a tournament which he wouldn’t remember too fondly. He has had a decent showing but towards the latter half, he was a far cry from being the player we all know he can be. He definitely does merit a mention but to declare him as the best player of the tournament is maybe taking it a bit too far. There are players who are more deserving of the Golden Ball than the Argentine and which is why maybe Lionel Messi didn’t deserve the Golden Ball.

What do you think? Did Messi deserve to win the award? Who is your pick for the Golden ball? Let us know in the comments below.

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Faiz Darvesh
ANALYST
An ardent Arsenal fan. A football lover, a cricket follower and a tennis observer.
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