Just for kicks: In the shadow of Maradona, Messi looks for a crown

Updated on Nov 23, 2022 12:27 PM IST

Maradona was a genius. So is Messi. Maradona could dazzle you with his skills. So can Messi. Maradona’s left foot was a gift from the heavens. So is Messi’s. Maradona could take over the game. So can Messi. Maradona won club titles. So has Messi. Maradona was one of the best. So is Messi. But Maradona, almost single-handedly, inspired his team to a World Cup. Messi hasn’t. Yet.

Lionel Messi after the loss to Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday. (REUTERS) PREMIUM
Lionel Messi after the loss to Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday. (REUTERS)

Maradona was a genius. So is Messi. Maradona could dazzle you with his skills. So can Messi. Maradona’s left foot was a gift from the heavens. So is Messi’s. Maradona could take over the game. So can Messi. Maradona won club titles. So has Messi. Maradona was one of the best. So is Messi. But Maradona, almost single-handedly, inspired his team to a World Cup. Messi hasn’t. Yet.

For most Argentina fans, a comparison between Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi is inevitable. In most cases, Messi fans have no answer to the Cup argument, but they hoped this World Cup would change that. How will they feel after Saudi Arabia ended Argentina’s 36-match unbeaten streak with a come-from-behind 2-1 win in the first match of Group C?

Coming into the tournament, Argentina were the favourites for many. They had no clear weaknesses. They were on the second longest unbeaten run in football history. They beat Brazil 1-0 in the 2021 Copa final to win their first major title in 28 years. They looked ready, and they have Messi. But on a day that will lead to introspection and some panic, the value of genius might itself be questioned.

There is an old video of Messi as a kid (somewhere between the age of 5 and 11) in Rosario playing for Grandoli and Newell’s Old Boys that has done the rounds for years. It shows him in an oversized No 10 jersey controlling a ball that is way bigger for his feet than seems right. He cuts through defences and scores... over and over again. With right foot and left, leaving his opponents with hands on their heads, as if to say, “This shouldn’t be happening; a kid our age can’t be doing this.”

Cut to a video of Messi at La Masia, Barcelona’s famed academy. Now 16, still wearing the No 10 jersey, still leaving defenders gasping for breath. Most will never get as good at dribbling as Messi was at that age, and to those who have followed his game since, it is clear he was already playing as he does now -- the dribbles, the passes and the shots. He’s only got better.

Move forward to the 2006-07 season, Messi was 19 then. His game had progressed at an incredible pace, opponents were hacking him down but he was stronger than he looked and Barcelona were now featuring him regularly in their starting XI. The match was the 2007 Copa del Rey semi-final against Getafe — a team that played tough football.

The ball reached Messi just before the half-line. He cut through two players from the right, skipped past the challenges, and then put on his sprinting shoes. The defenders tried to stop him but he showed skill; he showed aggression; he showed tenacity to leave them in the dust. He took on five players and still found time to finish with his right.

It was reminiscent of Maradona’s legendary goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. Catalan television played them side by side on a split screen and it was difficult to tell one apart from the other. The baton, in a sense, had truly been passed — from one genius to another.

But that goal ratcheted up the pressure on Messi too. Suddenly, fans around the world wanted the little man they called La Pulga (“The Flea”) to engineer a World Cup run like Maradona did.

At Germany 2006, he was just starting out. He made his Cup debut in a group game against Serbia & Montenegro. He came on as a 74th minute substitute, assisted for the fourth goal, and scored the sixth as Argentina won 6-0. In the quarterfinal loss to Germany, he remained on the bench.

In the lead-up to the 2010 tournament, Argentina played Messi in a deeper role, and that saw him score just four goals in 18 qualifying games. He excelled in playmaking but his team again came a cropper against Germany, losing 4-0 in the quarterfinals.

The 2014 tournament saw Messi at the height of his powers. Each time Argentina needed something special, he delivered. A brace against Bosnia & Herzegovina, a late winner against Iran, an assist against Switzerland, and another strike in the shoot-out against the Netherlands. In the final against Germany — the best team vs the best player — Argentina could not take their chances and Mario Gotze snuck in to score the winner in the 113th minute.

That defeat hurt. After leading Argentina to the Copa final in 2015 and 2016 and losing both, Messi announced his retirement from international football. The decision highlighted how much he wanted the big trophies. Individual brilliance in a team sport counts for little without them.

Russia 2018 didn’t quite go to plan, with Argentina losing to France in the Round of 16 after an unsettled group stage.

But for Qatar 2022, there was optimism in the air. The false start might just kick-start their engines. The bridges though, in a sense, have been burnt. Mexico and Poland are the other teams in the group and are beatable. In a way, it sets up the stage for the man himself, but can he rise to the challenge?

A genius without a Cup is still a genius, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Maradona knew that, and so does Messi.

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