Goal.com Special Debate: Lionel Messi vs Diego Maradona – So Who Is Better?

Goal.com's Carlo Garganese compares the two Argentine geniuses…
Comparing players from different eras is always a difficult task, but following Lionel Messi’s astonishing four-goal rout of Arsenal in the Champions League at Camp Nou last night, it is simply impossible not to compare the little Argentine to his compatriot and idol Diego Armando Maradona.

Below, we take a look at various facets of the game, and assess how both Messi and Maradona measure up to one another. Please note that much of the below is hypothetical. Messi does not turn 23 until June, and barring injury or bizarre loss of form he has most of his career ahead of him.

Club Level – Domestic

On a domestic level, it is quite easy to sum up Lionel Messi’s impact. Since truly bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old in 2005-6, the little wizard has been the scourge of opposition throughout Spain. He has already won three Spanish league titles, and looks likely to finish top-scorer this campaign.

As for Maradona, he was a phenomenon before moving to Europe in 1982, scoring 143 goals in just six seasons – five at Argentinos Juniors and one at his beloved Boca Juniors where he won the Argentine Primera Division. His two years at Barcelona from 1982-84 are often misunderstood. Thirty-eight goals in 58 games is an excellent return, but his time was unhappy as he was brutally mistreated by defenders and fell out with the club hierarchy.

At Napoli from 1984-91, he became a living God in the eyes of all Neapolitans after leading the club to their first ever Scudetto in 1987, and another in 1990. Never has a player been revered as much by one club’s supporters as Maradona was.

While Napoli did have many excellent other players such as Careca, Alemao, Ciro Ferrara and Bruno Giordano, it is true that none of their success would have been possible without Maradona. As for Barcelona, while Messi is somewhat irreplaceable, there is such a multitude of other world class players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that you feel they would still be the best team in Spain even without their best player.

Club Level – European

Messi has already won two Champions Leagues, and he was absolutely influential in their success last season as he finished top-scorer in the competition and also headed home in the 2-0 final win over Manchester United. The four-goal salvo last night was just another example of just how good Messi is when he kits up in Europe.

As for Maradona, he endured some misfortune in Europe’s premier cup competition. In 1987, Napoli lost in the first round to Real Madrid, while in 1990 they were beaten on penalties in the second round by Spartak Moscow. However, Maradona did lead Napoli to glory in the 1989 UEFA Cup, which at the time was arguably the most difficult European competition to win as it featured the second, third, fourth and fifth placed teams from many of the top leagues. Diego led the Partenopei to memorable wins over Bordeaux, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Stuttgart.

International Level

If Messi will probably finish his career with a better European record than Maradona, he has some way to go to replicate what his idol did on the international stage.

What Maradona achieved in 1986 in singlehandedly dragging a poor Argentina team to World Cup success, scoring wonder-goals against England and Belgium in the last eight and last four respectively, will probably never be matched by anyone. For starters, unless production dries up dramatically, Messi will never play in an Argentina team as ordinary as that from 1986 so we will never really know his individual impact alongside 10 rather average team-mates. The same probably goes at club level too.

What Messi can do to imitate Maradona is actually lift the World Cup. At the moment, the Ballon d’Or winner is not loved in Argentina like he is in Catalonia. The reason for this is because he hasn’t yet transferred his club form onto the international arena. At the 2006 World Cup he wasn’t fully fit, and he was criminally underused by coach Jose Pekerman. In the competitive games since Messi has largely underperformed. Yet at the age of 22, he has probably three World Cups still to come.

When Maradona was 22, he was looking back with regret at past World Cups. In 1978 he was left at home as Argentina won the tournament, while four years later he was given some rough treatment by the likes of Italy’s Claudio Gentile and exited the Mundial in disgrace by getting sent off against Brazil. We all know what happened in the next World Cup in 1986, so Messi shouldn’t panic.

Medals & Trophies

Messi has thus far won three Spanish league titles, two Champions Leagues, a Club World Cup, the Ballon d’Or, World Player of the Year, among many other trophies.

Maradona on the other hand, won a World Cup, league titles in Argentina and Italy, national Cups in Spain and Italy, and a horde of individual honours including best player at the 1986 World Cup, FIFA Goal of the Century, and FIFA Player of the Century (People’s Choice).

Of course team prizes, the greatest of them all being the World Cup, are very important, however it is incorrect to judge a player solely on silverware. Maradona would have likely won far more club honours had he played for one of Europe’s super-giants during his prime. Meanwhile, the Ballon d’Or was not open to non-Europeans during his day and the FIFA World Footballer of the Year award was only started in 1991 when Maradona was 31. What we can gauge from the above is that both players are undoubtedly winners.

Goals Scored & Assists

So far Messi has scored 13 goals in 43 games for Argentina, one in the World Cup, as well as 119 goals in 207 matches for Barcelona. His current career goal-to-game ratio is 0.528.

Maradona hit 34 in 91 appearances for Argentina, eight in World Cups, and had a club career total of 311 in 590 appearances. His current career goal-to-game ratio is 0.506.

What we can learn from this is that the duo have almost identical goal ratios. Messi certainly played much further forward than Maradona, who would drop deep to pick up the ball and could even sometimes be described as a midfielder rather than a trequartista or second striker. Diego also played in a notoriously defensive domestic league in Serie A, whereas Messi has plied his trade in the open and attacking La Liga.

However, in Messi’s favour it must be taken into account that Maradona scored a significant number of goals from penalties. Messi’s ratio will certainly decline, though, when he enters the twilight of his career but it may yet improve before then. This season, for example, he has scored 39 goals in 42 games.

As for assists, it is almost impossible to print any reliable statistics. What cannot be argued is that both players created a significant number of goals. Maradona had the better footballing brain, and was much more of a classical playmaker than Messi, but that is not to say that the latter won’t develop even further in this regard in the coming years.

Fair Play & Off The Pitch

Really this isn’t an argument that should be used in determining who is the better player. Regardless of how poorly Maradona behaved off the pitch, and how much he bent the rules on it, this all makes no difference to how great a player he was.

Indeed, in South America, being crafty and sneaky is seen as a major part of the game. If you can con the referee or an opponent and score a goal because of it, then you are tactically and mentally a better player. While on moral grounds Maradona can be criticised for his cocaine addiction, it should not interfere with how he is regarded as a footballer.

The same goes for the media-shy Messi, who despite all his modesty in the press, has had his ‘dark’ moments too. The superstar was caught in a spitting row after appearing to gob at Malaga’s Duda in 2008. He also replicated Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ against England by scoring a similar handball goal against Espanyol. Maradona was often very misunderstood off the pitch, and certainly not the devil he was painted as in the British press post-Mexico ’86.

Style Of Play, Technical, Physical & Mental Qualities

Of course, there are the obvious comparisons. Both players are fleet-footed Argentines with the God-given ability of gluing the ball to their magical left foot and slaloming past defenders.

In terms of skill, dribbling, pace, agility, acceleration, balance, determination, crossing and finishing, there is almost nothing to seperate a peak Maradona from a peak Messi.

The weaknesses of both players are similar also – most noticeably the weaker right foot and ability in the air. Messi will point out, though, that he scored a header in the Champions League final win over Man Utd.

Maradona has the advantage in the set-piece department. He was a world class free kick taker, both shooting directly at goal and crossing into the box. He could curl the ball over the wall from close range, mid-range and long-range, or swerve it with power. Messi has yet to master free kicks. Maradona was also an ice-cool penalty-taker, sometimes too cool leading to penalty misses such as the one in the 1990 World Cup quarter final shootout win over Yugoslavia.

Messi was more of an attacker than Maradona, who often occupied a deeper role – especially for Argentina. For this reason, Diego was a superior playmaker and probably placed more emphasis on creating goals. Maradona also perhaps had a slightly more natural feel of the ball than Messi, and it is highly debatable whether the world will ever see a player so comfortable in possession as the ex-Boca Juniors hero.

As for shooting, until a year or so ago, Maradona would have been far ahead but Messi has improved considerably. This season alone he has scored some screamers from outside the box, including the equaliser against Arsenal last night.

In terms of leadership, there is no doubting that Maradona had a greater influence over his team-mates. His presence on the field was enough to convince those around him that they could beat anyone with Maradona on their team. Diego was a tactical organiser, he would position his men, encourage them and fire them up. Messi is far more of a quiet assassin. It must be recognised, though, that Leo is only 22 and footballers gain their wisdom as they get older. At the age of nearly 22, Maradona was by no means an example to all as he was sent off against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup for stamping on Batista’s genitals. The following year he was involved in the infamous Barcelona-Athletic Bilbao brawl.

Finally, in terms of the Big Occasion, it is fair to conclude that both players have mostly performed when it really mattered. Maradona was a star in the big World Cup games, as well as in key Scudetto deciders for Napoli. Messi never shirks a challenge, and for Barcelona at least he has never disappointed, scoring in the Champions League final last year. Now, he just needs to show his true colours for Argentina.


What makes this whole debate somewhat hypothetical is that Messi is still only 22. If he were to sustain a terrible injury tomorrow and never play another game in his career, it is unlikely he will be regarded as greater than Maradona.

A legend is someone who performs brilliantly over a long period of time. It is not the same being world-class for a few years before disappearing from the game. Paolo Maldini is the best left back in history partly because he played for almost 25 years at the very top. This is something that will always go against Ronaldinho. From 2002-2005 the Brazilian was truly unplayable, but he then went into decline and while he has had a renaissance this campaign, it would not be unfair to argue that he was only world class for maybe four years of his career.

Maradona was world class from at least 1979-1990. Messi has been among the best players in the world for at least four years now. If he can maintain this current level until he is 30, then he will have matched Diego’s longevity.

Whether or not he can match Maradona altogether is another question entirely.

What are your views on this topic? Can Messi go on to surpass Maradona? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think…