Lionel Messi retires: What Diego Maradona and Messi really brought to the world of football
The entire world was shocked today by the sudden and abrupt decision of Lionel Messi, football’s global superstar of the modern age, to retire from international football. 2 successive Copa America finals resulted in losses to Chile on penalties. 3 consecutive years of ‘almosts’ for Leo Messi has left a bitter taste in his mouth, and football’s golden boy appears to have had enough of the global stage.
From the proverbial good boy, to the devil in disguise, in character, no two people can be more dissimilar than Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. El Diego was perhaps the most controversial character to have ever graced the football field. Outspoken and brash, Maradona has always been the rebel to Messi’s conformist. While time will tell whether Messi made a decision that was thought out and deliberated, or whether it was just a comment spurred by emotion, the jury is out on what both superstars leave behind as a legacy in the world of football, especially for Argentina.
Maradona swaggered onto the scene in 1982, a brash youngster, supremely talented, and extremely arrogant. Having been extremely disappointed to have missed out on the 1978 World Cup which Argentina won, he was determined to prove himself to the world. A decade later, he had etched his name amongst the upper echelons of the pantheon of footballs greatest. Never before had one single player carried the burden of his entire team like El Diego did in those days. 1986 Mexico will forever be Maradona’s World Cup. And it had the best and worst of Maradona for all to see. The infamous ‘Hand of God’ saw that he was not averse to bending the rules to win, while the solo run from midfield has become part of footballing folklore, as the greatest display of individual skill the world has ever seen.
When Messi burst onto the scene in 2005, Ronaldinho was hogging the headlines. And yet within a span of 5 years, Messi had reached that ‘unattainable’ standard the entire footballing fraternity can only look up to, but never even think of emulating. The lynchpin of Barcelona’s spectacular teams of the late 2000’s onwards, Messi has been a treat to watch, the little magician wielding his wand, and everyone else left gaping in disbelief.
When Maradona broke through the ranks at Argentina, the challenges were far different from when Messi did. For Maradona, he was a young boy, filled with angst at having been overlooked for the squad of ‘78. Argentina were the defending champions in the 1982 world cup, which was Maradona’s maiden appearance. He had to prove that he could walk the talk and deliver on the big stage. That he was a necessary component of a champion outfit.
Messi played his 1st world cup in 2006. Argentina had been knocked out of the group stages in the previous edition, and the entire country wanted a hero to lead them forward, which despite all his goalscoring feats, Gabriel Batistuta could never be. When Messi truly arrived on the international stage, Argentina had a dearth of stars they could pin their aspirations upon. Cut to 2016, and Argentina are once again a strong unit. Making it to the finals of the last 3 tournaments, and yet never crossing the line ahead of the pack. In the reign of Messi, Argentina have once again become a footballing superpower to be reckoned with.
This leads us to an interesting and if somewhat generalised question as a conclusion. Whose legacy will be greater? Maradona, the fighter, the man who relished a challenged, who led a below average Argentina team to the 1986 World Cup and Napoli to the European Champions Cup, or Messi, the modern day architect, who defied tactics, video analysis, and elaborate plans of the opposition to bring back the beautiful to the beautiful game? Will it be the legacy of football’s problem child or its ideal child?