By Daniel Edwards
Ever since a weeping Diego Maradona saw his international career come to an end thanks to a failed drugs test during the 1994 World Cup, a generation of talented Argentine playmakers have had to wear the millstone of being the successor to the irreplaceable No.10. Many have worn the label of the ‘new Maradona’, but few have been able to deal with the pressure of carrying a nation’s hopes on their shoulders.
Some of the players charged with the burden have carved out excellent careers in their own right, such as Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega and the player arguably more of an idol in Maradona’s beloved Boca Juniors than the man himself, Juan Roman Riquelme. And some, such as Carlos Marinelli and the original wearer of the label, Diego Latorre, shrink under the pressure and fulfil none of their original potential, becoming instead journeymen across the lesser leagues of Europe and South America.
Not one man however has earned the right to claim the mantle of ‘D10s’ from the temperamental little wizard. But there is one player who is currently edging closer every day to fulfilling the role. Lionel Andres Messi may cringe at the comparisons, but to observers in his home nation there has been no better player since Diego hung up his boots.
‘Messias’ is the tag local press have bestowed upon the little Rosario native, which goes some way to defining the significance that the Barcelona star has for supporters of the Argentine national team. Coach Sergio Batista has also made no attempt to hide how important he is to his side, declaring the 23-year-old the world’s best player on several occasions and admitting his charges are a much less fearsome prospect when he is left on the sidelines.
The idea is as clear as day; Messi is being earmarked for the same pivotal role for this year’s Copa America and the 2014 World Cup as Maradona enjoyed in the glorious 1986 campaign in Mexico.
The latest round of comparisons began in the wake of last week’s wonder goal against Real Madrid, which sealed a 2-0 win in the Bernabeu and put Barca in pole position to qualify for the Champions League final. The precision of touch, awareness of surroundings and strength on the ball magnified by his low centre of gravity brought back all the old memories of Diego for local observers; and no-one was more effusive in his praise than Maradona himself.
|"Only at the end of history will we see who was the greatest, Maradona or Messi"
- Diego Maradona, April 2011
“I conquered Europe as a player, and Messi is doing it now,” the 2010 World Cup coach stated, proving that if nothing else he still has the power to keep Argentina under his spell; first on the pitch with his dizzying talents, and now with an opinion or soundbite which has the power to be picked up across the world. The outspoken star even managed to fit in a sideways swipe at old adversary Pele, mischievously suggesting that it must be killing the Brazilian to have two Argentines as the world’s best.
He did admit however that in many respects he and Messi are very different players, and in this at least he could not be more correct.
There is a certain, if not definitive, similarity between the two on the pitch, especially with the ball at feet. The Barcelona man however has become a much more accomplished forward than his hero, and watching closely the majority of his goals come from close range and are the product of anticipation and co-operation with his gifted team-mates. A mighty 179 goals in 265 matches represents his club tally ahead of Tuesday’s Real Madrid meeting, which outstrips Maradona’s 108 strikes in the 250 games he played in Europe.
Off the pitch the differences are even more stark. In front of a microphone Messi often comes across as painfully reserved, timid even, and it is difficult to bring to mind one memorable quote - the closest would be his pre-World Cup exhortation “Vamos Argentina, la concha de su madre!!!” which was facilitated by the plentiful champagne that accompanied Barcelona’s La Liga celebrations and should not be translated on a family-friendly website.
Compare this to Diego, whose most famous outbursts have transcended football and passed into common Argentine parlance. Maradona has made comments that have penetrated the zeitgeist, and remain in the language of schoolyard kickarounds, discussions in cafes and bars as a testament to this larger-than-life character and his effect on a nation.Messi then will most likely never enrapture a nation like his predecessor in the mythical No.10 jersey with his off-field antics, whether positively or, as sadly has happened many times, negatively. There is no need however, as watching him waltz around opposition defences and salute the heavens after another goal leaves no doubt in the mind that he, unlike so many of the challengers that preceded him, could fill the shoes of the unique Maradona.
Tuesday’s key clash with Madrid continues some of the biggest months of Messi’s football life, with 40 million Argentines praying that his season will finally end by lifting the first Copa America in 18 years on July 24 in his home country. The pressure will be immense, but he has the talent and most importantly the self-belief and confidence to rise up to the challenge.
Messi may never be the new Maradona, and it is unlikely given the weight of the tag he would even want to be. He is a unique talent, a phenomenon in his own right, and such a comparison is a disrespect to two Argentine stars who, in their own way, left and are leaving an indelible mark on world football.
Messi, like his compatriot once did, will play a vital role for both Barca and Argentina, and fans of the two know that he will need to be at his imperious best if the two famous football institutions wish to celebrate a 2011 to remember.