Whether it’s fair or not, Messi is forever stuck in Maradona’s shadow
Comparing Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona is an admittedly tired trope, but it is an inescapable one and comes into particularly sharp focus this weekend.
Thirty-three years ago to the day, on June 22, 1986, Maradona produced two of the most iconic moments in football history within the space of four minutes. Two moments that perfectly encapsulated what this squat Argentine footballing icon was all about, for better and for worse.
Facing England in the World Cup quarter-final at the famous Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Maradona both deceived and danced his team’s way past their opposition.
First, in the 51st minute of the game in sweltering heat, came the infamous ‘Hand of God’. The Argentine captain, having started the move by weaving brilliantly, latched onto a bundled England clearance and – despite the mismatch between the 5ft 4in forward and 6ft goalkeeper – rose above Peter Shilton to punch the ball into the net.
Just four minutes later came spectacular trickery of another, more legal nature. With England perhaps still dazed by the injustice, Maradona picked the ball up inside his own half with his back to goal. Spinning deftly, he darted past two England players towards the touchline, dribbled by two more, then rounded Shilton and tucked the ball into the net.
It was ‘The Goal of the Century’, and it arguably remains the greatest thing ever seen on a football pitch.
Argentina went on to win the World Cup, beating West Germany in the final as Maradona was crowned player of the tournament.
With the Falklands War in the background, Maradona was remorseless over the nature of his first goal against England, himself giving it ‘The Hand of God’ label.
In those four minutes, 33 years ago, we saw the best and worst of Maradona; the edgy desire to push the limits to win, coupled with the natural genius he was blessed with.
Winning the World Cup with Argentina is, of course, a feeling that Lionel Messi has never experienced. Indeed, the indirect successor to Maradona’s mantle has never won a major tournament with Argentina, despite reaching four finals (three at the Copa America and one at the World Cup).
As social media is flooded with footage of those famous Maradona moments from 1986, Messi will be preparing to save his country from yet another disaster.
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Bottom of their group with one point from two games, Argentina have to beat Qatar in Porto Alegre on Sunday to stand any chance of reaching the Copa America knockout stage. Fail, and it might be the last time we see Messi in an Argentina shirt.
Messi’s woes with Argentina are familiar, and are being laid bare again in Brazil this summer. Maradona himself has even chimed in, accusing the current team of being “a disgrace to the shirt.”
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Amid all this, comparisons between the World Cup winner and Messi will inevitably rear their heads again.
Just as with Messi and rival Cristiano Ronaldo, we have an obsession with comparing and contrasting, a desperation to say who is the best within generations and across them.
Social media has taken that up a level, as rather than simply enjoying players for who they are, we treat the situation as a zero-sum game: if one player is good, another must therefore be bad. It’s wrong, but it’s so tempting to do it.
READ MORE: Messi’s misery: Why the Argentina star needs to step up at the Copa America
And that is particularly the case with Maradona and Messi, who bear such clear similarities: the nationality, the shirt number, the diminutive stature, the mesmerizing left foot, the obvious status as being among the best ever to play the game.
But while the contrasts between Messi and Ronaldo are easier, given they are of the same generation, they are far more complicated with Maradona.
The game has evolved to such a degree in terms of fitness levels and performance management that even the 10-year gap between the end of Maradona’s career and the start of Messi’s has seen a huge contrast in the demands placed on players. (It would be unthinkable, for example, for a player to function nowadays while maintaining a prodigious cocaine habit.)
If we venture to compare them statistically, Messi stands far above his countryman. Maradona played 91 times for Argentina, scoring 34 goals. Messi has 68 goals in 132 games. The current Barcelona number 10 has a career haul of 671 goals to Maradona’s 310.
Messi has been far more consistent than Maradona was throughout his career, and will certainly never suffer the spectacular lows that came with the former Napoli star’s highs – as shown in the brilliant new documentary film by Asif Kapadia.
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Messi has also conjured up so many moments of brilliance with club and country, and may still pull off mission impossible by leading his team to the Copa America title this summer.
But what Maradona will always have is that iconic summer from 33 years ago, when he dragged his team to the pinnacle of the game, both by hand and by foot.
And because of that, whether it’s fair or not, Messi will never be able to step out of his countryman’s shadow.
By Liam Tyler