Lionel Messi: On the cusp of World Cup greatness?
Argentina's star striker Lionel Messi has won World Player of the Year four times. With his club Barcelona, Messi has six Spanish league titles and three Champions League titles. But Lionel Messi doesn't have a World Cup win, yet.
On Sunday at the Maracana stadium in Rio, Messi will come up against a Germany team that has ended his two previous attempts to bring his country a third World Cup title.
Messi has won everything that there is to win with his club Barcelona - six Spanish league titles and three Champions League titles along with various Cups.
On an individual level he has been crowned World Player of the Year on four occasions and has broken several scoring records.
But for his country, the ultimate prize has evaded him so far. A 2008 Olympic gold medal and an Under-20 World Cup win back in 2005 are not to be dismissed but the narrative has long been set - if Messi wants to be viewed in the same category as his compatriot Diego Maradona and Brazilian Pele, he needs to win a World Cup.
Maradona was the star of Argentina's second World Cup triumph in 1986, scoring five goals and creating as many again with some memorable performances.
Pele won three World Cups with Brazil - in 1958, 1962 and 1970 but while Messi's skill and achievements at club level have put him close to the two other South American greats, he has yet to win the big one.
Messi had just turned 19 and was just coming back from injury when Argentina went out in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup on penalties to Germany.
Four years later in South Africa, Germany again ended Argentina's hopes with a crushing 4-0 defeat and Messi bowed out of the tournament without a goal to his name.
Now the 27-year-old Messi has the opportunity to make Germany pay for those two defeats and at the same time end the discussion about his contribution to the national team.
In Brazil Messi has looked like, not only Argentina's star, but their leader on the field, as he has responded to close marking by drifting deep and providing prompts and creativity from behind striker Gonzalo Higuain.
Messi made his mark in the opening group game against Bosnia with a fine finish for his team's second goal after helping create the opener in the 2-1 victory.
In Argentina's second game, a very tight affair against a determined Iran, Messi won the match with a brilliant 25-yard strike in stoppage time.
Two more goals followed in the 3-2 win over Nigeria and in the round of 16 he helped create Angel Di Maria's winner against Switzerland.
Messi struggled to make an impact in the next two rounds when he was marked closely but showed his confidence and leadership as he went first up to successfully convert his penalty in the semi-final against the Netherlands.
Now comes Germany and more close marking no doubt, but the perfect stage for him to stake his claim for a place among the very greatest of all.
Germany vs. Argentina
Sunday's match will be a repeat of the 1986 and 1990 World Cup finals, the first of which was won by Argentina before the then West Germany gained revenge four years later.
Midfielder Maxi Rodriguez scored the decisive penalty for Argentina after their goalkeeper Sergio Romero had saved spot kicks from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder, triggering wild celebrations among Messi's triumphant team.
"I'm proud to be a part of this group," Messi said in a statement posted on his social media pages.
"They are all phenomenons, what a match they played.
"What madness. We are in the final. Let's enjoy it, it is just a little step more."
Brazil may have won the World Cup more than any other country, but the one they wanted most of all will now be played between two of their greatest rivals.
For Brazilians, it is unpalatable prospect for the mourning samba nation but for soccer fans, it is a dream showdown between a German team that has wowed everyone at the tournament and Messi, who has won every honor except the World Cup.
Wednesday's second semi-final in Sao Paulo could not have been more different than Tuesday's goalfest in Belo Horizonte but the sheer tension of the occasion had fans on the edge of their seats.
"I'm very happy because we reached the final and now we will see what we can do," said Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella. "We will give everything as usual, with humility, work and 100 percent effort."
Neither Argentina or the Netherlands created many chances in a dour game that was dominated by defense but ultimately came down to a battle of nerves when they finished deadlocked at 0-0 after extra time.
For players and fans, the tension was almost unbearable and it was the Dutch, who have played in three World Cup finals, including the last one in Johannesburg four years ago, but never won one, who fluffed their lines in the shootout.
It was also a second semi-final defeat on penalties for the Netherlands who suffered the same fate against Brazil in 1998.
"I didn't have the feeling in the second half that we would lose," said Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal.
"And when it comes to penalties you know it's a lottery. The boys did fantastically (well). Nobody had expected this."
The Dutch will play Brazil in the third-place playoff in Brasilia on Saturday as the recriminations into the host nation's limp exit gather pace.
Brazilian media savaged the team's performance with newspapers describing the Germany defeat as an "historic disgrace", "national humiliation", "eternal shame" and a "fiasco".
A lot of the blame was directed at Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose future is now the source of wide speculation with Tite, Muricy Ramalho and Vanderlei Luxemburgo looming as his possible successor.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff took to social media to express her disappointment to a country reeling from the loss after spending more than $11 billion on hosting the tournament.
"I'm immensely sorry for all of us, our fans and players," she tweeted. "But let's not let ourselves give up. Brazil, get up, dust yourself off and bounce back."
Riot police, who had been deployed at fan sites around the country to handle any violent outbreaks, had a quiet night with most fans too traumatized by the manner of defeat to revolt.
An Argentine journalist was killed in Sao Paulo early on Wednesday morning when his taxi was hit by a stolen car fleeing police. He was the second Argentine reporter to die in a car wreck while covering the World Cup.
The mood in Germany could not have been more different with more than 32 million people watching their country's victory on television, a record rating which accounted for an audience market share of almost 88 percent.
Hundreds of thousands of Germans watched the match from the avenue leading to the Brandenburg Gate and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to attend the final.
A regional court in Nigeria last week ordered the sacking of the existing NFF executive after the team's performance at the World Cup, where they were eliminated by France in the second round.
The court appointed a new administrator to run the game in the populous west African nation but FIFA warned Nigeria they would be banned from competing internationally unless the old leadership was restored to power.
"The suspension will be lifted once the court actions have been withdrawn and the properly elected NFF Executive Committee, the NFF general assembly and the NFF administration are able to work without any interference in their affairs," FIFA said.
(Editing by Ed Osmond and Nigel Hunt)
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)