Everybody has a view on the greatest player to ever grace the game of soccer. At this moment, fans and pundits rate Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as two serious pretenders to the crown, with good reason. Yet the one who is most often mentioned in the same breath as his fellow countryman Diego Maradona, arguably the best ever, still has some way to considered a better player than the 1986 World Cup-winner. Here is why he will have to do more than win the World Cup in Brazil to be ranked alongside El Diego.
If one is to base an argument on what a player has won, then Messi has done it all at club level with Barcelona. Six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues and two World Club Cups, not to mention a number of domestic cup wins in Spain is far more than Maradona ever achieved. The former Napoli man, who also played for Barcelona in the 80s, won two Italian titles and the UEFA Cup as well as some domestic cups. He also scores far more goals than Maradona ever did and the latter has overtaken the former in the national team top scorer charts. Looking at the two records, Messi is streets ahead. In many people’s eyes, the Barça man has nothing to prove and if he wins the World Cup with Argentina, in the backyard of its biggest rival, Brazil, he will only cement his position as the best ever. Not quite. Yes, Messi has a domestic record every player dreams of and he has started to perform for the national team after years of mediocrity. His level of consistency despite injury and a tax evasion case hanging over his head deserves to be applauded.
Maradona, in contrast, will go down as a villain because of mafia links and failing a drugs test at World Cup USA. Not to mention years of cocaine abuse. He also handled the ball in the World Cup he went on to win, but so did Messi in a match against Barça’s local rivals, Espanyol. The difference, apart from the game not being anywhere near as high-profile as Argentina v England in the World Cup quarter-final, is that he was repentant. Maradona was not. The World Cup-winning captain has not been the most popular man on and off the pitch and many would be pleased to see Messi surpass him. To this day, Maradona will not kowtow to authority.
While all of the above points to his being the greater and more likeable of the two, there are some things people less familiar with Maradona need to know. Maradona played in an unfashionable Napoli team with Brazilian, Careca, the only household name at the time. Other members of the side went on and had distinguished careers, but under the auspices of the Argentine, they were all but carried to two league titles and the UEFA Cup. Look at Napoli before Maradona and the years after him. They were mediocre. Bankruptcy and relegation haunted the club for a long time. Only in the last handful of years have Napoli showed any form of resurgence. Messi has played in one of the best clubs sides of all time for pretty much all of his career to date. Maradona had to ride challenges a player would get a lengthy ban for now. Andoni Goikoetxea, known as “The Butcher of Bilbao” threatened to end Maradona’s career when Barça met Athletic Bilbao back in the 80s. It was not for the want of trying – Goikoetxea hacked down Maradona and broke the young Argentine’s ankle. Referees did not protect him. Messi can be hit by a slightly mistimed tackle and the referee will blow.
Maradona also played with a much heavier ball on pitches that would cut up in the winter, making it more difficult for the more skilful players to play their normal game. He won trophies and was top scorer in Italy when it was two points for a win. It was a very difficult time for strikers in Serie A with the defensive style of Catenaccio, used primarily in the 60s and 70s, was still in use by some teams. They were happy with getting a draw a lot of the time. In terms of international football, Messi has had his critics. Many claim that because he was in Catalonia from when he was a child, he feels more Spanish than Argentine, which people say shows in his performances. That accusation cannot be leveled at him now, especially as he put in some solid performances during the World Cup qualification process.
Yet Maradona’s performances at Mexico 86 have yet to be matched by any player. Fantastic individual goals against England and Belgium got the Argentina team to the final against West Germany, where he lifted the trophy. He scored or assisted 10 of his country’s 14 goals, including the pass for the winning goal against the Germans. Jorge Burrachaga, who scored the winner in the final, was probably the brightest of the secondary stars in the team. Osvaldo Ardiles was past his best. In short, Maradona was the closest the world had seen to a one-man team. He does not face that problem. A squad with Ezequiel Garay, Angel di Maria, Maxi Rodriguez, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain can shoulder the burden if Messi goes missing. Such is the embarrassment of riches enjoyed by Argentina, Carlos Tévez cannot even get a regular spot.
The Argentine has his eyes on winning the tournament and his team will be among the favorites. Regardless of where his team finishes, his place in history has already been assured. If he thinks he will surpass Maradona in the process, however, he will not. Messi needs to do it outside of his comfort zone – with players who could not do it without him.
World Cup Preview is a daily series providing commentary and analysis of the teams and players participating in this year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Commentary by Robert Shepherd