Messi or Maradona: part two
ONE day, maybe, Lionel Messi will prove the global game's greatest player, but not yet, and certainly not just because he put five goals past a Bayer Leverkusen defence which had already been taken apart this season by Bundesliga relegation-strugglers Augsburg and Cologne.
Messi may be scoring goals at a rate rarely seen since Dixie Dean's heyday, but he does have the advantage of being at the sharp end of probably the greatest team of all time. Take Messi out of Barcelona and what do you have?
We already have an answer. In the last World Cup Messi failed to score in five matches as Argentina lost in the quarter-final to Germany. It is argued that the Champions League is now a higher standard than the World Cup (not that the presence of Apoel Nicosia in the quarter-finals adds much weight to that view).
Whether it is or not is irrelevant when judging Messi because he is playing for the best team in the competition, a team which even without him would be formidable. A truly great player is capable of turning a moderate team into a winning one. Like Diego Maradona.
English attitudes towards Maradona are understandably coloured by the "Hand of God" goal but his notoriety should not obscure his greatness. Maradona turned base materials into gold on both the club and international stage. Napoli were a shambles when they somehow found the cash to buy him in 1984. Fighting relegation had become a way of life with the club surviving by a point the previous season. Maradona turned them into title contenders and in 1986/87 they won the first scudetto in the club's history. A second Serie A title, and Napoli's first European prize, the Uefa Cup, followed. Since Maradona left, the club have not won a trophy.
Maradona was similarly central to Argentina's 1986 World Cup success. Ten of their 14 goals were scored or created by him, and his five goals included superb ones against England and Belgium of the type now associated with Messi. In the final, after West Germany had come back from 2-0 down to level, he supplied the pass for Jorge Burruchaga to score the winner. All this while carrying a knee injury which had threatened to rule him out of the tournament.
Brian Glanville, in The Story of the World Cup, his history of the competition since 1930, wrote: "It will always be remembered as Maradona's World Cup, seldom has a player, even Pele, so dominated the competition. In an era when individual talent was at a premium, defensive football more prevalent than ever, Maradona - squat, muscular, explosive, endlessly adroit - showed that a footballer of genius could still prevail."
This context is another factor in Maradona's primacy. He formerly played in an era when the tactics were negative and the tackling brutal. Maradona's relative lack of impact at Barcelona, and later decline, had much to do with the injuries he suffered including the notorious ankle-break by Andoni Goikoetxea, the "Butcher of Bilbao". Only after the 1990 World Cup, when Maradona carried to the final an Argentine team which was as guilty of these sins as any, did Fifa begin the crackdown which has allowed players like Messi to flourish.
While Maradona was by some distance the most notable player in the 1986 squad, Messi, in 2010, had the likes of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron for company. Yet still he was unable to inspire them, even to the last four. Messi was only 23, but Pele had been part of two World Cup-winning squads at that age, and had scored twice in the 1958 final at 17.
In Europe much of the blame for failure in 2010 was heaped on the fact that Maradona was manager, but in Argentina Messi has borne the brunt of criticism for the albiceleste's struggles. Playing in the Copa America last summer in his home province of Santa Fe, Messi was called "mercenary, Catalonian" (his nickname in Argentina where he is perceived as being more interested in club than his country), before being taunted with chants of "Maradona, Maradona". Maradona was no longer coach but hosts Argentina were still knocked out in the quarter-finals after one win in four matches.
There is, though, hope on the horizon. Under new coach Alex Sabella, Messi scored a hat-trick against Switzerland last month. Should this promise end in triumph in the 2014 World Cup, in Brazil, with Messi playing a prominent part, he will have earned the right to stand alongside Pele and Maradona in the game's pantheon.