Sports

Only the Hand of God Can Separate Messi and Maradona

Lionel Messi has stepped away from the international stage without equalling Diego Maradona's achievements. Yet the oddity is that, in many ways, the younger man's achievements far outstrip those of his predecessor.

by Jonathan Wilson
Jun 28 2016, 3:15pm

Larry W. Smith/EPA

On the destination boards at the Subte – the underground system in Buenos Aires – there are messages begging Lionel Messi to reconsider his decision to retire from international football. The Argentinian Prime Minister, Mauricio Macri, has called on his country's most famous active player not to quit the national side. Argentina's most famous former player, Diego Maradona, has weighed in. Slightly later than might have been expected, a nation has learned to love Messi.

It has been a difficult relationship. Argentina has traditionally been skeptical of those, like Jorge Luis Borges and Che Guevara, who first earned acclaim abroad. They felt that same doubt about Messi, who departed Argentina at 13 to join Barcelona. Again and again the accusation has been levelled that he did not really feel Argentinian, that he did not give his all for the albiceleste shirt. At the last World Cup, a website even dredged up a psychologist to claim that Messi's mumbling renditions of the national anthem were evidence of a conflicted sense of identity.

Yet the most striking fact about Messi is perhaps how Argentinian he remains after 16 years of living in Spain. His accent is still that of his home city, Rosario, and his tastes are resolutely those of his homeland: in food, music and film Messi is Argentinian.

When Argentina hosted the Copa America in 2011, it was clear that Messi wasn't as popular as his team-mate Carlos Tevez. There were more Tevez than Messi shirts being hawked outside stadiums. When the teams were read out before kick-off, Tevez's name would receive a far greater roar. In Santa Fe, Messi's home province, the announcer even described the Barcelona star as the best in the world and Tevez as the player of the people.

Messi and Tevez were the future of Argentine football. Now, both appear to be in its past // Achum Scheidemann/EPA

In 1928, Borocoto, editor of the sports monthly El Grafico, proposed raising a statue to the spirit of Argentinian football, saying it should depict "a pibe [urchin] with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seems to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday's bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use."

Almost half a century before Maradona made his debut, Borocoto foretold his coming. Tevez, too, fitted the archetype, though in that 2011 tournament public opinion began to turn against him. In contrast, Messi is now loved at home, but he always suffers by comparison with Maradona. Lionel's father was a factory manager. He did not grow up in a villa miseria. He did not spend his childhood battling poverty. He is not some distillation of Argentinian football's self-image.

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Yet the oddity is that, in many ways, Messi's achievements outstrip those of Maradona. Times are different and comparisons often misleading, but Messi is more disciplined and more consistent. At Barcelona he has won the Champions League four times, eight La Liga titles, and four Copas del Rey. Maradona also went to Camp Nou, won a Copa del Rey, contracted hepatitis and left in a huff. He then enjoyed remarkable success at Napoli, winning Serie A twice and a UEFA Cup in 1989.

Messi's critics point out that he has never done anything comparable and it's true, he hasn't: he's never joined an aspirant club with a history of failure and transformed them into champions. But at the same time, Napoli were not no-hopers. They broke the world transfer record to sign Maradona and also had such players as Ciro Ferrara, Salvatore Bagni and Careca. Much of the rest of Maradona's club career was characterised by inconsistency and controversy fuelled by his lifestyle.

Maradona's international career ended in ignominy at the 1994 World Cup // PA Images

Indeed, were it not for one tournament, "El Pibe de Oro" would be regarded as a supremely gifted player whose dissolute social life ultimately undermined his talent. Maradona won the World Cup. That is the prize that Messi is missing. He hasn't been able to break Argentina's 23-year trophy drought, despite playing in three Copa America finals and the 2014 World Cup final. Where Maradona delivered, Messi's career is a history of the near miss. It's no wonder that haunts him. The pressure is enormous and, when it was he who missed the decisive penalty in the Copa America final on Sunday, it is understandable that it should all seem too much.

And yet he will only be 31 at the next World Cup. There is no reason why he shouldn't play and be at something like his peak. A break from the grind of the national side – the trans-Atlantic trips, three successive (European) summers without rest, a dysfunctional Football Association – may do him some good. Argentina already seem to have realised what they will be missing; if there was any doubt he is loved at home it has gone in the past couple of days.

Maradona was forcibly retired from the national team in 1991 when he was 30. Without him, Argentina won two successive Copa America titles, but he returned after the 5-0 home World Cup qualifying defeat to Colombia. He then shot at journalists with an air rifle and, having helped Argentina to reach the 1994 World Cup, failed a drug test.

If Messi decides to return for the 2018 World Cup, it's unlikely to go as badly wrong as all that. Who knows, there may even be a chance for some long-deferred glory.

@jonawils