The greatest players can do nothing for 90 minutes than score a fabulous winner and twice already at the 2014 World Cup have we seen Lionel Messi do this. Yet, despite his legendary status in the world game he has been relatively quiet so far this summer, in facing the challenge of not only lifting the famous gold trophy, but emulating his most infamous of predecessors, Diego Maradona.
After watching Maradona many times for Napoli I have to admit I cannot see anyone ever being better than the little man from Lanus. Unfortunately I have never seen Lionel Messi but certainly on the televised evidence there’s no doubting he has magical skills as well.
However, on the almost unanswerable subject of matching Maradona I will put in two riders. In my opinion, until Messi drops down the League and drags a club like Espanyol for instance, up by the bootlaces, as Diego did with Napoli - a club one point away from relegation the season before he signed - he can never be judged in the same overall social/footballing standing as Diego.
The other criterion only echoes what two world-wide legends in Brazil’s Ronaldo and France’s Michel Platini have said. “Messi will always be great with or without winning the World Cup,” the French legend has considered. “However, the World Cup is something special by which he would be remembered.”
In a similar vein Ronaldo claimed: “Messi is fantastic but will only be a legend like Zidane and Maradona if he wins the World Cup.”
Of course some think Messi does not need to dominate this tournament as he has proven on many occasions in the Champions League that he can overcome the best that the world can offer.
However, for what he has already achieved in his early years at club level, the Barcelona ace’s chance to join that pantheon of true greats comes at the end of this tournament and until then I am holding fire.
So too is the 27-year-old: “The comparison with Maradona is a very nice compliment, but not one that I can accept yet. He did so much for the national team - and I don’t think any player can be considered a true great until they have won the World Cup. I hope that I can do that and I hope I can do that this summer - but until then I don’t talk about me as the best.”
Are the comparisons between the two fair? First let’s just look at some comparable facts concerning them both regarding the World Cup. By a similar age to Messi, Maradona had played in two tournaments. In 1982 Diego was just 22 and helped Argentina to the second phase before being knocked by eventual winners Italy. However, in 1986 at the very top of his powers, just as Messi is now, he scored five goals, including arguably the best ever at a World Cup, as he single-handedly inspired his team to lift the Cup.
One of the main reasons Diego is still worshipped is that he won the trophy with his heart firmly stitched on to his sleeve. When he lifted the Cup and kissed it, adulation in the stadium was inter-planetary. It will be extremely hard for Messi to get anywhere near that level of reverence - that’s not to say that Messi doesn’t love his mother country as much as Il Pibe, but the perception is that his country does not reciprocate that level of devotion. Going into his third tournament, as Messi has this summer, 1990 saw Diego lead La Albiceleste to the final again, only losing through a controversial refereeing decision that saw Germany given an undeserved penalty.
Whilst Messi continues to close on Diego’s eight goals over three-and-half World Cups, with five so far to his name in 11 appearances, his former Coach’s shadow remains ever-present. The day after his last minute goal that won the game against Iran was the anniversary of Maradona's one-man annihilation of England in Mexico. As noted Argentinean writer Martin Caparros reminds us: “Maradona had the enormous advantage that he didn’t have to be like anyone else, and Messi has to be like Maradona all the time.”
Of course stats cannot tell the whole story and Diego exemplified the ability to succeed and no matter the obstacle, achieve something, and that is why he is still revered by several generations. “Maradona always took charge of the team,” said former Argentinean manager Cesar Luis Menotti recently. “Diego naturally took responsibility. Instead Messi plays a part, important though it is, in the operations of an orchestra as finely tuned as Barcelona.”
In conclusion I am not denying Messi is not a fabulous player and like Maradona he was blessed at birth to be one of the greatest, but it must be taken into account that up this point, Messi has not faced assassins like Inter’s Beppe Bergomi, Milan’s Franco Baresi, Sampdoria’s Pietro Vierchowod or Diego’s own nemesis from Spain, the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ Andoni Goikoetxea, on a weekly basis.
In the World Cup, the tournament of tournaments, the very apex of football, only those that have won it can be considered among the very best, even if obvious exceptions remain - Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano for two. On this alone, as great as Messi is, in my opinion, he can never hope to be judged on the same level as Maradona until he at least achieves that pinnacle of international recognition and success.