The anecdote might be more or less apocryphal, but it goes like this: it’s the early nineties, and two foreign journalists are talking about football in the back of their taxi in Buenos Aires. They’re discussing who is the best player in the world, and they involve the driver in the debate. “Lothar Matthäus”, he says (I told you it was the early nineties). The journos are puzzled. “What, no Maradona?” “Well, you asked about the best player in the world”, the driver deadpans. “Maradona is God”.
Maradona’s links to deification are well known, from his having a whole Church devoted to him to the infamous ‘hand of God’ goal against England in 1986. And if we have reached such heights of hyperbole with him, what should we make of Leo Messi? He has already achieved the tag of Mesí-as (the Messiah), but give him time, and he’ll get to the pantheon of the Gods in due course. He’s still only 22.
What a player really needs for this is a World Cup medal. The Champions League is arguably the most difficult trophy to win, and because players are not tied to a single team throughout their careers, as opposed to international football, there is space for upward, as well as downward, mobility. Being signed by a team that will win it is the true measure of success as a player these days. But for some reason, triumph in this competition doesn’t seem to equal to access to god-ness. Players such as Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, or Francisco Gento, he of the six trophies, have been honoured as they deserve, but seem to always rank below players who achieved their best at country level.
Can Messi do it in 2010? Yes, he can. Maradona had plenty of solo goals during his career, but the brilliance of efforts such as ‘the other goal’ against England in ‘86 shouldn’t hide that his main ability was his capacity to make others play by drawing defenders to him, freeing teammates and being able to thread a pass where it seemed impossible a ball would go. Messi is not like that. Messi scores more Maradona-like goals than Maradona himself. He hasn’t got to 40 goals this season by tapping in brilliant passes, nor does he need constant service. Many of his best and most decisive goals have come from just getting the ball to his feet and then beating three or four men to score. That ability is priceless, and it doesn’t really depend on who is playing around him.
Or it shouldn’t, because it remains puzzling that Messi hasn’t been able to shine as much for Argentina as he has for Barcelona. It may have something to do with the albicelestes having so much firepower that they would need several footballs to go around. Higuaín, Milito, Tévez and Agüero are not renowned for being exactly ball-shy. And, coming back full circle, it falls to Maradona, as Argentina manager, to lay on the conditions for this talented group of goalscorers to deliver in South Africa. This team can play better or worse, but it should never be lacking in goals, and under Maradona it has.
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