On a rain-swept, chilly evening at the Copacabana, Nicolas Gallardo rued about not being able to afford a ticket to the 2014 World Cup final. Gallardo was a teenager and had come with his uncle to Rio. Till the conversation veered towards Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, there was nothing noticeable about the generation gap. Then, Gallardo said Messi was the best while his uncle pitched for Maradona.
Barring their gifted left foot and well-documented tax problems, there is little similarity between Maradona and Messi. Maradona is “a crazy little giant who dices with death and toboggans into hell on a daily basis,” wrote Marcela Mora Y Araujo in the introduction to the autobiographical ‘El Diego’ which she translated into English. But that’s just not it.
“Maradona has provided Argentines with a sense not just of identity but also of escape,” Jimmy Burns wrote in the ‘Hand of God’, a seminal unauthorised biography on the flawed genius.
That’s important. Maradona’s World Cup victory in 1986 came not long after the Falklands War and if ever a country needed soccer succour, it was then. Four years later, he almost helped do an encore.
As a coach in the 2010 World Cup, Maradona’s team lacked balance but he was flamboyance personified, lighting up the dank interior of the press room at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium. Gelled hair, watches on both hands, eyes rolling in feigned surprise and diamond studs in his ears, the interactions had to be seen as much as heard or read. And from Platini to Pele, Diego’s diatribe spared none.
“Maradona has no filter, so what he says or does usually make for interesting viewing or reading,” said an Argentine journalist during the 2014 World Cup.
In contrast, Messi seems almost trained to resist obvious trappings of stardom. Successive Man-of-the-Match awards in Brazil meant he had to appear in front of the international media regularly during the group stage. Argentina were piggy-backing on him but he spoke softly, admitted to being nervous and only highlighted the group’s collective effort.
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Messi’s records in club football outstrip Maradona’s by a distance and he is only 29. He is also Argentina’s highest goal-scorer and has taken the team to three successive finals. But it is perhaps his inability to dominate major international games that will keep him in El Diego’s shadow. And Maradona’s occasional poke, once even asking whether he was Swedish or Argentine, have contributed to that. Publicly at least, Messi has never reacted.
The dynamics of football too have changed now. Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson have both said the Champions League is more difficult than the World Cup. Paul Breitner, who has won both with West Germany and Bayern Munich, had told HT in 2011 that what Messi does almost daily for Barcelona makes him the best in the world.
But maybe that doesn’t buy popularity in Argentina, a country Messi could have opted not to play for. Because, as a journalist put it in 1928, there is an element of trickery, a sense of rebelling associated with football there. So what if he has lurched from one disaster to another after 1990, Maradona typifies that. Messi seems almost antiseptic in comparison.