Why Messi surpasses Maradona without needing World Cup victory

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Did Lionel Messi need to win a World Cup to be the best? “What? No!” replied Diego Maradona at his kitchen table in 2014. Maradona, the late Argentine great whose shadow hangs over Messi’s career, elaborated that winning football’s biggest trophy “has nothing to do with it. Don’t confuse the two . . . a World Cup will not take away anything he’s done”.

These words, published recently in Diego Maradona: The Last Interview And Other Conversations, resound ahead of Sunday’s World Cup final between France and Argentina. At 35, it is probably Messi’s last international match. But should he fail to win the one prize he lacks, that would not weaken his claim to be football’s Greatest of All Time or “GOAT” — fans on social media often refer to him with an emoji of the animal.

Two components go into the making of any sporting legend: brilliance and persona. Messi has only the former, as if he played like The Beatles while dressed as an accountant.

Whereas Maradona expressed his personality on the field, Messi never tried to. He aimed solely for efficiency. There were no unnecessary feints or flourishes, never a hint of art for art’s sake. From the start he consciously pursued GOAT status, chasing individual records for goals and trophies. Kylian Mbappé, a teammate at Paris Saint German but an opponent on Sunday, believed Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were driven on by their personal rivalry: “One without the other might not have remained the best far ahead of the others for 15 years.” 

Messi’s routine for most of those years was to shine for Barcelona in the Camp Nou, then commute 25 minutes home along the almost empty midnight highway to his nondescript family compound in small-town Castelldefels. The journalist Santiago Segurola wrote: “Sometimes Maradona was Maradona. Messi is Maradona every day.” But brilliance on demand can become strangely boring.

Messi beat Ronaldo. According to the Messi vs Ronaldo app, he has 791 career goals at an average of 0.79 a match; Ronaldo has 819 goals but from 1,145 games so only averages 0.72. Exclude penalties, and Messi’s lead grows. He also has 0.35 assists per match, against Ronaldo’s 0.2. None of this diminishes Ronaldo. In most eras he would have been the greatest. He was past his best this tournament, but then he is 37.

All you can be is the greatest of your time. Comparing different eras is impossible. Past greats were constantly kicked by defenders, whereas today’s superheroes are valued as TV content and protected by referees. That has given Messi and Ronaldo their longevity. Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Maradona between them played just two World Cup matches after turning 30: Maradona’s in 1994, before he was banned for using drugs.

Messi, winner of a record seven Ballons d’Or for world’s best player, has reinvented himself in middle age. Rewatch his run against 20-year-old Joško Gvardiol in the semi-final. He dribbled past the Croatian defender but lacked the speed to accelerate away, and kept having to fool him again. Once in the penalty area, he gifted Julián Álvarez a goal.

He now spends the bulk of games walking, saving his waning energies for the hardest thing in football: the moment of breaking open a defence. “He knows how to exploit the slightest circumstance, the least action,” remarked Javier Pastore, his former Albiceleste teammate.

All Messi lacks is a persona. Maradona, raised in a slum suburb of Buenos Aires, was drenched in Argentine lore. In 1986 he understood that his defeat of England avenged the Falklands war four years earlier, when, in his words, British soldiers killed Argentine conscripts “like little birds”. 

Messi, who emigrated to Barcelona aged 13, embodies a different Argentina: the generation that fled the country’s economic collapse. He was raised almost outside society, the joint product of a family and Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy. He may never live in Argentina again.

And Maradona came first. Messi’s career is judged by Argentines as a would-be repetition of Maradona’s. Messi always understood that his predecessor would mean more, saying early in his career: “Not in a million years will I ever get anywhere near Maradona.” Only belatedly has he learned to express emotion. After beating the Netherlands here, he broke off from an interview to yell at Dutch player Wout Weghorst: “What are you looking at, fool?” He will still never match Maradona’s verbal performances.

That does not make Maradona the greater footballer. Yes, he won a World Cup and Messi may never. But as Maradona understood, knockout tournaments turn on the finest margins. Had the referee in 1986 spotted Maradona’s handled goal against England, or had Gonzalo Higuaín, Messi’s teammate in the 2014 final, netted alone against German keeper Manuel Neuer, Messi might have surpassed Maradona already. Probably through sheer bad luck, he has yet to give his compatriots an unforgettable moment.

The claim that Maradona was the greater leader is false. Messi is a different kind of leader. A good player takes responsibility for his own performance. Messi takes responsibility for the result. Argentina need him to beat France. He feels the burden — sometimes vomiting from stress before matches — but he accepts it. His Argentine teammates, who flew from around the world to his birthday party in Ibiza in June, appreciate it.

Messi’s triumph on Sunday can feel predestined, the scripted ending. But even if he goes out in anticlimactic defeat, he will have been the greatest — probably of all time.

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