The comparisons between Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona can be a little tiresome, but they’re understandably natural. Both supreme masters of their craft, both Argentinean No.10’s, both left-footed, both deistic figures for their compatriots. And on the cusp of the 2014 World Cup final, both potentially winning captains on the biggest stage of all.
It was 28 years ago when Argentina last won the World Cup, inspired by a marriage of Maradona’s majesty and opportunism. In the final, the Albiceleste triumphed over a Germany side that were a formidable outfit, one that ticked all the boxes when fulfilling the age old cliches when it comes to Die Mannschaft.
Maradona was a marked man in that final, with Lothar Matthaus tasked with shadowing the diminutive genius. Overall, the German did a pretty decent job, as the Argentina skipper had a very limited effect on the game. But Maradona wriggled free of Matthaus’ attention late on and played a tremendous pass into the path of Jorge Burruchaga, who slotted home the game winning goal.
You suspect a similar fate awaits the Argentina skipper 28 years on, as Messi looks to make his imprint on the biggest match in the game. Throughout the knockout stages, teams have tried to pin the Barcelona man down with a myriad of different tactics, and such is his indisputable talent, expect Joachim Low and his Germany side to have their own specific plans in place.
But if the Albiceleste are to savor World Cup glory for the third time in their history, Messi must find a way to influence the game in a manner comparable to Maradona’s heroics back in 1986. And after starting the World Cup in scintillating form for Argentina, the Barcelona man is due a strong performance.
Back in 1986, Maradona put in a pair of stunning individual performances against England and Belgium in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively. He scored a brace in both games and dazzled the opposition with his quick-feet, sensational dribbling and composed aura in front of goal.
While Messi put in performances of vigor and endeavor in the group stages — helping himself to four goals in the opening three games—we’ve yet to see the best of him in the knockout phases; he’s yet to put in a showing that is comparable to Maradona’s virtuoso displays back in 1986.
Sure he slotted home under pressure in the penalty shootout against the Netherlands in the semi-final and he set up the winning goal for Angel di Maria in extra time against Switzerland in the last-16, but Argentina’s opponents have “parked the bus” and tried to quash Messi’s influence. Subsequently, he’s struggled to make an impact comparable to the early stages of the tournament.
But Messi has had this kind of treatment his entire career and has typically flourished in spite of it. The harsh truth is that he’s a player that looks physically tired. While he has given us some superb moments in this World Cup, they’ve been precisely that: just moments. We’ve yet to see a full, rounded performance from the little maestro that’s truly befitting of his mercurial ability.
This most evident in the semi-final, a game which the Argentina No.10 would typically relish. Against the Netherlands, Messi was a peripheral figure, walking around the pitch seemingly downtrodden, picking the ball up in deep areas and unable to make any kind of incisive contribution; he didn’t touch the ball once in the Dutch penalty area except when he scored a penalty in the shootout.
So often in the Blaugrana strip, we’ve seen him buzzing around between the lines, doing all he can to rid himself of his marker or conjure up pockets of space in amongst convoluted defenses. But that effervescence hasn’t been there over the past few games. Messi’s father was quoted recently stating that it looks as though his son’s legs weigh 100kg each, an accurate representation of his physical condition.
Nonetheless, Messi must rally himself for a game that could potentially cement his status as the greatest player of all time. If the 27-year-old can somehow rediscover his best form and break from the physical constraints that seem to be hampering him, his place amongst the pantheon of footballing greats would be indisputable.
And what a place to do it. How epochal an occasion would it be to see Messi and Argentina parading the World Cup trophy around the Maracana? His career has been decorated with iconic moments in crucial games, but emulating Maradona in the backyard of Argentina’s biggest international would be the coupe de grace for Messi; soccer immortality is the for the taking,