Maradona's shadow looms over Messi

BySimon Kuper ESPN logo
Sunday, July 13, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO -- During the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Diego Maradona often used to sit up in Argentina's team hotel into the early morning, hanging out with his entourage. His coach, Carlos Bilardo, let him. Indeed, the insomniac Bilardo sometimes joined the night sessions. The other players had been tucked into bed hours before, but his star could do what he liked. As Bilardo later told Maradona's biographer Jimmy Burns, "I said to myself, there's Maradona and there's the rest of the team." Everything revolved around Maradona, and he delivered the World Cup.

Today, everything in Argentina's camp revolves around Lionel Messi. Because he rarely speaks, coach Alejandro Sabella expends a lot of effort trying to find out what would make him happy. When Messi indicated at half-time of Argentina's opening match against Bosnia-Herzegovina that he wanted a different lineup, his will was done. He has helped carry Argentina to the final. But even if his team beats Germany on Sunday, he probably won't dislodge Maradona from the top of the Argentine pantheon. Match for match throughout his career, Messi has been the more consistently brilliant player; yet Maradona's role in football history is bigger.

Jorge Valdano, a teammate of Maradona's in 1986, once told me about the locker-room scene after Argentina had beaten England in the quarterfinal in Mexico City. Maradona had scored both goals: first the "hand of God," then the equally unforgettable dribble. In the locker room, Valdano teased him: While Maradona had been dribbling past Englishmen, Valdano had been running alongside him calling for the ball. Why hadn't Maradona passed? "Yes," replied Maradona. "I was watching you, and kept meaning to pass, but the English kept getting in the way, and suddenly I'd beaten them all so I just scored." Valdano replied, awestruck: "While you scored this goal you were also watching me? Old man, you insult me. It isn't possible." And the midfielder Hector Enrique called from the showers: "Lots of praise for the goal. But after that pass I gave him, if he hadn't scored he should have been killed!" Everyone laughed. Enrique had shoved the ball into Maradona's feet in their own half.

The story captures two characteristics of Maradona in 1986: He towered over his teammates, and yet he always felt as one with them. He didn't worry too much about how the others played. All they had to do was shove the ball into his feet, and he'd do the rest. He played that tournament with painkilling injections, and wore one boot several sizes bigger than the other because his bad ankle swelled during games, writes Burns, but nothing stopped him. Maradona wasn't considered the best player on earth when he landed in Mexico. He was when he left. It was the standout month of his career.

Emotionally, too, it was an unmatched month for Argentines. Cesar Luis Menotti, coach when Argentina won their first World Cup in 1978, once told the writer John Carlin that for most of his countrymen, 1978 paled besides 1986. That was because Maradona in 1986 embodied the best of Argentina's football tradition; and because Maradona beat England, the historical enemy, four years after Argentina's defeat by Britain in the Falklands War. He was avenging history. Then, at the World Cup of 1990, he beat Argentina's other old enemy, Brazil. He provided the happiest moments in Argentine football history.

Messi in 2014 is a less compelling story. He arrived in Brazil as the acknowledged best player on earth of the past five years. Only in flashes has he shown what we already know he can do.

Like Maradona in 1986, he has played damaged: Messi's father says he feels exhausted, as if his legs weigh 100 kilos each. But unlike Maradona, Messi has looked damaged. He has rarely answered his teammates' prayers by running free and calling for the ball. He has dragged himself through matches, saving Argentina with one brilliant moment each against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Switzerland, and with a bit more against Nigeria. He has barely featured in Argentina's past two games, against Belgium and Netherlands. So far he has four goals and one assist, compared with Maradona's five and five in 1986.

True, just by being on the field, Messi is decisive. Jonathan Wilson, historian of football tactics, explains, "The paradox of Messi: he makes Argentina a better side because nobody dares attack them." The opposition always keep several men near him, which relieves pressure on Argentina's defense and its other forwards.

Yet he hasn't led the team like Maradona did in 1986. As the tournament has progressed, Messi's teammates have realised he won't play that role, and they have become less dependent on him. Argentina's leader is now Javier Mascherano, not the weary genius wearing the captain's armband.

Messi has yet to provide an unforgettable emotional moment. Beating Bosnia-Herzegovina or Iran in a group game doesn't quite compare with Maradona against England. So far his Argentina hasn't played a game that anyone will be reliving 28 years from now. The Argentines haven't slain an old enemy -- in fact, Germany did that for them, with the 7-1 against Brazil.

And Messi lacks Maradona's wild poetry. Whereas Maradona managed to make himself a central character of every World Cup he played in, Messi has never said an interesting sentence in his life. He has had a brilliant career, but without Maradona's sense for peaking at the supreme moment.

The last reason why Messi 2014 cannot match Maradona 1986: because Maradona came first. By now, every World Cup is an echo of past World Cups. The Argentine players who line up in the Maracana on Sunday will have the ghosts of all previous Argentine teams on their shoulders. The first time a country wins a World Cup simply means more. Even the fact that everyone is now weighing Messi against Maradona '86 dilutes his importance.

If Argentina lose to Germany, then the parallel becomes 1990: the year that a tired, wounded Maradona managed only flashes of his old magic. Messi, best player of this generation (and possibly any generation), deserves better.

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