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Chasm that defies consolation

- Messi’s prize and pain

One particular, ultimate trick tests the would-be magicians of Fifa every four years: how to emerge from a World Cup with enough controversy to keep the world in thrall to the spectacle while leaving a positive legacy of memories.

For the players and the coaches, it’s a much simpler and more devastating dynamic. One team and squad of 23 players goes home as the winners; the remaining teams and players go home as losers.

Most knew their fate on arrival; their issue was the manner and timing of their departure. A handful believed fervently in their ability to go all the way. Hence sport offers few more wretched sights than the exposed despair of the losers at the concluding whistle of the final.

Argentina’s players and officials, in Maracana on Sunday night, were all struck between the eyes with the fine distance dividing life-changing success from career-shadowing failure when they dragged their weary limbs past the World Cup trophy on the way to collecting their losers’ medals.

That said, Germany were worthy winners. They generated the finest team performances in both their opening 4-0 defeat of Portugal and their historic 7-1 semi-final humiliation of hosts Brazil.

Then they produced a performance of grit and discipline to emerge triumphant from extra time in the final with a marvellously appropriate winning goal from Mario Goetze, coach Joachim Loew’s “boy wonder”.

Goetze’s winner arrived almost as late as Andres Iniesta’s winner for Spain against Holland in the 2010 final in South Africa. But the emotions in the aftermath were very different.

In South Africa the quality of football was poor, with far too many teams commanded by negativity and satisfied merely with their presence at the tournament; Holland’s rugged approach to the final brought not only their own game but the entire tournament to the brink of disgrace. A depressing end to four largely depressing weeks.

Brazil 2014 was the other side of the coin.

World federation Fifa set itself significant challenges in taking sport’s greatest event to both countries. At one stage, president Sepp Blatter opined that Brazil’s indolence had left it even further off the preparatory pace than South Africa had been with less than a year to go.

Somehow, mysteriously, it all came together just in time. Expectations among officials, fans and media were not extravagant, which may have assisted the enjoyment. Perfection was not on the staging menu — except, as it turned out, from the people who mattered most, the players.

Not a day went by in the group stage without breaths being drawn from all over Brazil at the twists and turns of unexpected fate: Holland’s opening demolition of champions Spain, Germany’s Rolls-Royce smooth acceleration away from Portugal, Costa Rica’s quarterfinals adventure, the excited and exciting campaigns of Colombia and Mexico plus the particular enthusiasm which the United States brings to any sports event.

Outstanding goals too: Robin van Persie’s swallow-dive header against Spain, Tim Cahill’s volley against Holland, Luis Suarez’s double against England, Wayne Rooney’s all-pitch riposte in the same game plus just about all unbelievable seven for Germany against Brazil.

Luiz Felipe Scolari has resigned as manager of the hosts; he had no option. It was merely a question of defining the terms of his departure with the shell-shocked dual presidents of the Brazilian confederation, the outgoing Jose Maria Marin and the incoming Marco Polo del Nero.

At least Brazil reached the last four, which meant the momentum was maintained right to the end and, as Brazil dipped out, so Argentina’s passionate throng flooded further north to Rio to keep the South American flame alive.

It was alive until the very last minute of the tournament, a moment of high drama at the climax of extra time that matched Leo Messi against Manuel Neuer: a free kick to level the game and take it to penalties, or save it and spare the finals the indignity of a shootout.

Sadly, unfortunately, Messi did not even demand a save from the German goalkeeper, lofting the ball high over the bar. All over bar the shouting and the crying, the tears of joy and those of despair.

Neuer was a worthy winner of the goalkeeping prize though controversy surrounded Messi’s award of top player. He was by far the most talented and undeniably so after half-fit Cristiano Ronaldo went home to Iberia at the end of the first round; he was also decisive in almost every game he played to a level not matched by any other individual.

Except where it mattered most, in the final, which was supposed to be his icy pinnacle of destiny. Messi was not the most explosive individual on view: Holland’s Arjen Robben, Brazil’s class-of-his-own Neymar, goalkeepers Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico plus Colombia’s emergent James Rodriguez all ranked higher.

Maybe Messi should not be denied his right to a consolation prize. But what consolation will he consider it? To come so close and end up so distant is a chasm that defies consolation.

For those whose charge was “merely” to observe, however, it was a day-by-day delight and a privilege. Not that Messi will care; nor Neuer, for that matter.

Beyond the concerns of individuals, even teams and nations, for the overall worldwide unifying passion that is football, however, it was all just sheer magic.