For his sublime skills and global approbation as the prince of world soccer, Lionel Messi gave up as an Argentina player berating himself for being an underachiever.
As someone who grew up watching another magical left-foot pull the strings for Argentina, it was hard not to feel that Leo had been beaten by the aura of Maradona, who whipped up the ultimate underdog spirit for Argentina to overachieve.
Be it with Napoli or with an Argentine side filled with more industrious players than the present day talents like Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria providing the support cast, Maradona was the ultimate leader on the pitch, his we-against-the-rest-of-the-world inspiring the team to win the 1986 World Cup. He even dragged a side on the decline in 1990 to the final, where only a dubious penalty could secure the title for the superior West Germany.
Messi could easily have opted to play for Spain, having moved to the country as a 11-year-old. Perhaps, he would now be sitting with a few major trophies in his Barcelona drawing room. But once he decided to stick with Argentina, nothing less than a World Cup win would have given him the aura he so badly aspired for.
The original rebel
For starters, Maradona was a rebel in more ways than one. And he was the Pied Piper for every fan of the 1980s wanting to be different, to see the magical Brazilians brought down to earth. While Maradona reveled in the seeming chaos around him, Messi was a conformist, the spearhead of the neatness that Barcelona’s game embodies.
It has hardly helped that Argentina has looked at Messi as an outsider, but the diminutive genius didn’t help things by seizing leadership on the pitch. No demonstrative hand-waving, demanding the ball time and again.
For those who admired even the wickedness of Maradona (okay, the proponents of fairplay will call his outrageous “Hand of the God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup cheating), Messi didn’t fit in. The greatest footballing talent of the generation, yes, but the leader of Argentina football, well…
Messi internalising his anxiety to break free for Argentina didn’t help either. While it might be unfair to demand that Messi demonstrate his Argentine-ness with a major trophy, that becoming an all-consuming quest for Messi himself hasn’t helped the mood in the national team.
Argentina wouldn’t have even reached the final of the 2014 World Cup without the little genius, but the irony was that the team seemed to take upon itself the burden of their talisman.
Maradona had set a template, and winding up the opposition played a huge part in it. For every Argentina supporter, a dose of gamesmanship was welcome as it set the side apart from Brazil, owners of the beautiful game.
Messi could never whip up that sentiment. He was hardly the man to provide that battle cry. In the World Cup final against Germany two years ago, Messi had all the licence to do as he pleased, but instead of seizing the moment solo, he almost went missing.
Is Maradona envious of Messi? Maybe. He repeatedly winds up his compatriot, particularly around major championships. But it is inexplicable how the man who turns predator for Barcelona with the ball at his feet turns the hounded wearing the blue and white shirt of his national team.
For my generation, Maradona will always be Argentina’s number one. It will gladly anoint Messi as the new flag-bearer, provided he dons the combativeness of his predecessor-adversary than turn the suffering saint for his country.