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Lionel Messi

'When you act from the heart you really feel it' - Inside Messi's moving Newell's tribute to Maradona

12:00 PM EST 12/1/20
Lionel Messi Diego Maradona Barcelona Newell's GFX
The pair could not have been more different, but their lives have been intimately connected ever since the infant Messi witnessed Diego take the field

Lionel Messi knows better than most the struggle of living under the shadow of a great.

Even as a teenager in Barcelona 15 years ago, the Rosario native was already being dubbed a possible successor to Argentina's legendary No.10, one Diego Armando Maradona.

He was the latest of a string of promising talents to bear the burden of expectation as the 'New Maradona'; a list that goes all the way back to 1994 and the star's substitute in the World Cup following his infamous positive doping test, Ariel Ortega.

The likes of Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar went on to have stunning professional careers, even while failing to hit the same heights as the 1986 World Cup wizard.

Others, like Carlos Marinelli and Franco Di Santo, never came close to matching his deeds and faded away after their initial promise had waned.

Messi, though, is the man who threatened most to take on that sacred mantle, and he has suffered for that fact through comparison with the idol.

His affection for Diego, though, is genuine and heartfelt, as glimpsed with his unique homage at the weekend following the news that Maradona had passed away aged 60 last Wednesday.

Sunday saw Barcelona, one of Maradona's former clubs, take on Osasuna in what proved a routine victory for the under-fire Catalans.

Martin Braithwaite, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann had all struck prior to Messi's fourth goal, executed with typical aplomb from the edge of the area to give Sergio Herrera no chance between the posts.

The Argentina captain, though, chose not to remember the Blaugrana or even his national team in his tribute. Instead he ripped off and discarded his club shirt to reveal that of Newell's Old Boys, his boyhood side; the kit worn by Maradona during his brief stay in Rosario back in 1993.

For one moment nostalgia and sentiment prevailed over protocol and sponsors' requirements, making it one of the most meaningful gestures in a week full of tears for the passing of one of football's most memorable characters.

The story of the now infamous Adidas Yamaha shirt dates back to 2018. “What can I give to the kid who has everything?," Argentine judge Sergio Hernandez pondered, as told by Grafico journalist Daniel Arcucci - one of those closest to Diego during his lifetime - as he considered the perfect gift for Messi.

The magistrate, an avid collector of football memorabilia, had twice unsuccessfully attempted to give the shirt to Messi, but finally succeeded shortly before the 2018 World Cup, handing it over to mark the birth of his third son, Ciro.

It lay two years among the huge collection of shirts, balls, trophies and awards Messi has accrued during his sparkling career, until on Sunday it emerged as the perfect symbol of the connection that persists between two other-worldly No.10s.

Maradona, for instance, was wearing that same shirt when, on October 7, 1993, he debuted for Newell's against Ecuador's Emelec. In the stands that day in Rosario's El Coloso stadium was six-year-old Messi, accompanied by father Jorge.

“I don't remember much, I was only little, but I saw Maradona on the pitch the day he made his debut against Emelec,” he told TyC Sports.

Diego did not disappoint, smashing in a superb goal that, as fate would have it, bore an uncanny resemblance to Leo's strike on Sunday.

It proved to be one of only seven matches he played for the Lepra, but he nevertheless left a mark on the club, as he did with Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barca, Napoli, Sevilla; every team privileged enough to count 'El Pibe de Oro' among their ranks.

Messi, of course, was too young to have seen Maradona in his glorious prime. Growing up, Aimar, the virtuoso ex-Valencia and Argentina playmaker, was his idol on the pitch. But Maradona was always there.

In 1997, Messi began sessions in Rosario with endocrinologist Diego Schwarzstein in order to combat the rare growth disorder which had left him dwarfed by his schoolmates. The medic used the example of Maradona to inspire the budding footballer.

“When he came to me at nine years old he was 1.25 metres tall,” Schwarzstein explained to RosarioPlus in 2017.

“Following the injection treatments I estimated he would make 1.70m, and that's why on one occasion I promised he would be taller than Maradona.” Messi now stands at 1.69m, 2 centimetres taller than his former Albiceleste coach.

Messi similarly stayed only a short period with his beloved Newell's, moving to Spain at just 13 in the wake of the 2001 Argentine economic crisis when the hormone treatments became impossible for Newell's to continue funding. 

Maradona, meanwhile, was at one of his lowest ebbs, collapsing at the start of 2000 in Uruguay's Punta del Este resort and almost dying of a suspected overdose before moving to Cuba to receive urgent treatment for addiction and his ballooning weight.

And in 2008, the finest No.10s in Argentina's history would be united. A sleeker, healthier but no less outspoken Maradona took the reins of the national team from Alfio Basile and immediately coupled his coaching role with that of mentoring the 21-year-old, by then already marked out as one of, if not, the best in the world.

Messi rarely hit top gear in those chaotic 18 months under Diego, which culminated in World Cup quarter-final defeat to Germany, but he credited his manager for defending him during his toils in qualifying and inspiring him to bigger things.

“Leo is playing football with Jesus,” Maradona told reporters in trademark colourful fashion prior to South Africa 2010.

“Diego supported me and made me see things in a different way. He told me he would always be there, and that all he hoped was that I keep being myself,” Messi explained as he geared up for the finals. “That I should ignore all the talk and be happy, and do the same as in Barcelona.”

 

 

Maradona's subsequent resignation and the occasional barb that flew Messi's way when the national team failed to reach expectations did nothing to sour the relationship between the pair, who remained on warm terms to the end.

Indeed, it was rumoured that Messi would fly back to Buenos Aires to attend the star's wake, a plan ultimately rendered unfeasible due to the Maradona family's insistence in limiting the ceremony at the Casa Rosada seat of government to just 10 hours on Thursday, rather than the 72 initially requested.

Leo had already sent his tribute via Instagram shortly after the news broke; but Sunday's gesture felt more personal, deeper-felt and even more 'Maradona' in its rebellion and willingness to break the rules. The Barca man appeared to even pity referee Mateu Lahoz as he received the yellow card demanded by the laws of the game.

Former Argentina team-mate and current Newell's star Maxi Rodriguez, who was left in tears prior to his side's Sunday clash with Boca in the Bombonera, was especially touched by the tribute. “Leo's greatness is amazing,” he told reporters after the game, which coincidentally brought together two of Diego's old employers.

“Having these two monsters, who are Argentine, let's enjoy them. Today we can keep enjoying Leo on the field and I salute him for what he did.

“That photo will be engraved on the hearts of all Argentines and people across the world... [he told me that] it's what he was feeling. That is the crucial part, when you act from the heart and really feel it.”

Messi may never reach the status of popular icon that Maradona enjoyed and will forever enjoy in the hearts of the Argentine public. He has been away from his home nation for too long, is closeted and withdrawing where Diego was a born extrovert, unassuming and awkward in front of the camera when compared to one of the Spanish language's great working-class orators.

But nor does he need to. Messi and Maradona were connected by Newell's, the national team and their mutual admiration during the latter's lifetime, a link that survived in spite of their wildly differing personalities.

Sunday's moving tribute, arms pointing to the sky while wearing the Newell's No.10, was most significant because it was how Messi wished it, for a moment free of his obligations either to Barca or to the grey corporate suits.

A veteran of countless rebellions and a fervent believer in the power of players to shape their own destiny, Maradona too would have been proud to see his former disciple mark his extraordinary life in his own, intensely personal terms.