Prathapan Bhaskaran writes football fans will continue to compare the two players because of the Fifa World Cup record
Argentina’s early shock exit from Fifa World Cup 2018 brings back the question why Messi is no Maradona. The answer is in Diego Maradona’s childhood days in a crime-infested Buenos Aires neighborhood where he used to sleep with a worn-out football hidden under his shirt, fearing thieves. Lionel Messi had a more comfortable infancy in a laid-back central Argentinian provincial town.
Maradona’s success is indeed stupendous, but 31-year-old Messi’s achievements for the national team are no less staggering. Their impact on world football has invariably provoked comparison with a titan from another era, the Brazilian Pele.
Short in stature, both Maradona and Messi depend on speed, guile, and exquisite ball control to help their team. Both have a lethal left foot but are good with both in crunch situations. They have shown to be adept with scoring as well as assists, the preferred position being that of an attacking midfielder.
Messi has scored a record 65 goals for Argentina, outstripping Gabriel Batistuta in the second place at 54. Maradona is in the fifth spot with 34 goals. Messi’s average of 0.51 goals per game is far higher than Maradona’s 0.37.
At 128 caps, Messi is quite ahead of Maradona’s 91. Like Maradona, Messi also has a World Cup runner’s up trophy in his cabinet having lost in the final match to Germany in 2014. The glaring difference between the two is the World Cup that Argentina won in 1986 under Maradona’s captaincy.
Maradona has played four World Cup finals, though the last one, USA 1994, ended in disaster for him with a ban after failing a Fifa drug test. It also brought the curtains on his national career. Messi, who made his first Fifa World Cup appearance in 2006, could earn a fifth World Cup finals cap and even win the coveted trophy in 2022 at 35 years provided he does not retire from national duties and keeps himself fit.
The X-factor that made the difference between the two titans of world football must have got into Maradona from the socioeconomic environment into which he was born in 1960. Growing up in the poor neighborhood of Villa Fiorito, a shantytown outside Buenos Aires, in the early 1960s, Maradona had to be street-smart to survive each day. Perpetually underweight, he found his own ways to keep his meager belongings from bullies and thieves. It is no wonder that he became quick of the mind and fleet-footed and knew how to outsmart much larger tormentors – and, above all, keep possession. These qualities made him arguably one of the greatest footballers, the crowning glory of whose life was the almost single-handed winning of Fifa World Cup 1986 for his nation
Fourth of six children of a family of economic migrants to Buenos Aires from the remote and impoverished Corrientes province, Maradona had to be sharp and resourceful to survive the mean streets of the 1960s Buenos Aires. Poverty was a major player in the life of this son of a factory worker father and a homemaker in a household with five siblings – three sisters and two brothers.
Though a talent scout spotted him when he was eight years old, he needed to keep honing the mean edge to survive every day. Those instincts that helped him in life in the tough neighborhood naturally spilled over to whatever he did, including his game.
While his upbringing contributed a clutch of attributes that may have helped him brazen out many challenges on the football pitch, they also frequently landed him in trouble with fans and media off the football field. His tendency to slip into substance abuse and a life in and out of rehabs did not help ease matters for him.
As recent events show this aggressive streak has not mellowed with age. He even slapped a media person who questioned him on Messi’s poor showing in the World Cup.
There were millions of children in Argentina like Maradona suffering from the uncertain social, political and economic turmoil in the Argentina of the early 1960s. The country was still reeling from a military coup with the country’s economy steadily declining from the highs it touched in the early 1950s. The near-civil war-like situation had its impact on the general law and order in Buenos Aires to where millions of migrant workers gravitated to escape gnawing poverty. The skills that helped Maradona survive this tumultuous period helped him thrive on the football pitch. No wonder he led the nation to its second Fifa World Cup win in 1986.
Argentine politics stabilized towards the 1980s when democracy took root. The environment of peace ensured a period of economic growth and lifted thousands of families out of poverty. The year after Maradona fired Argentina to the second Fifa Cup victory, Messi was born into a well-off middle-class family in the peaceful town of Rosario, some 300km from Buenos Aires, in Santa Fe province.
Messi’s father, who was a factory manager, and mother, a skilled worker, earned enough for the future soccer star and his three siblings to lead a comfortable life. Messi picked up interest in the game from infancy and started playing in the children’s team of local club Grandoli when he was four. The little Messi, who danced circles with the ball around much older and bigger opponents, tormented the rivals no end. Messi, who is under treatment for a chronic growth-affecting hormonal imbalance, joined Barcelona’s La Masia football academy when he was 14 and the rest is history.
Messi, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner (a record he holds jointly with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo), has an Olympic Gold and has been part of the team that was runners-up in one Fifa World Cup finals and three Copa America finals.
Messi, no doubt, is a player on par with Maradona, though the absence of the Fifa World Cup in his trophy cabinet will always hound him. In fact, there is little point in comparing the two because they are from two different ages and from two backgrounds. However, the media cannot stop comparisons because people, in general, like such exercises, even if they are pointless.