The Lionel Messi vs Diego Maradona debate has never been more rational. It comes up again ahead of Sunday’s 2022 World Cup final, with Messi one step closer to clearing Maradona’s memorable hurdle in 1986. If the debate is rational, the current framework would be this: Messi can fix it once and for all. It’s all about defeating France, because for now, at least one more day, the World Cup title is Maradona’s. The only honor, and Messi still doesn’t have it.
A man passes by a mural depicting Argentine football stars Lionel Messi (L) and late Diego Maradona (R) in the eve of Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France in Buenos Aires, on December 16, 2022.
In every other category, the comparisons border on absurd. Messi could end his career with three times as many goals and four times as many trophies as Maradona. Some of these gaps are a product of times and chance, but Messi essentially replicated Maradona’s fleeting peak and sustained it for more than 15 years. He is peerless.
However, some fans, especially older Argentines, will argue that Messi will not – and cannot – ever match their original football god.
Because the debate has always been shaped by who Maradona is, who Messi is and what they stand for, not just what they do.
Maradona, the son of barrios, a child from the suffocating slums of Argentina, rose from poverty to greatness. He was flawed, deeply flawed, and battled a drug addiction that ultimately derailed his career — but millions of Argentines identified with that struggle. They deified him when he momentarily won the title and brought his compatriots to join him in World Cup glory.
When Messi hit their TV screens in the early 2000s, Maradona was already an unshakable legend. Messi, meanwhile, was an unknown kid who left Argentina’s lower-middle-class life for the green pastures of Spain at the age of 13. Maradona was arrogant and charming, while Messi was withdrawn, clean-cut and unemotional. He’s almost an anomaly, and no matter how hard he tries to stay connected to his Rosario roots, the only way he can prove to the Argentines that he’s one of them is by winning them something.
For years, he couldn’t.
In the first ten years of his national team career, Messi’s performance in the national team was not good. His failures have been exaggerated – after all, he’s broken nearly every goal record for Argentina and nearly tripled Maradona’s total – and many of them were not his fault. The Argentine Football Federation is a mess; his coaches (including Maradona) are incompetent; his team is incoherent. But none of that mattered to Maradona in ’86; he dragged a sub-elite team to the title. Messi was forced to do the same due to public pressure, and so often languished on similar stages.
Close up of a set of twins wearing shirts featuring Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona before the FIFA World Cup Semi-Final match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. Picture date: Tuesday December 13, 2022.
Then there’s Maradona, still a luminary in Argentine football, ready to strike and break down widespread criticism of Messi.
“We should stop mythologizing Messi,” Maradona said in 2018. “He’s a great player, but he’s not a leader. It’s no use trying to make a leader who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game.”
All the while, though, Messi has done things at Barcelona, at the highest level of club football, that no mortal could have dreamed of. He won the Ballon d’Or by the widest margin ever at the age of 22 – his first of seven Ballon d’Ors and counting. He scored 91 goals in a calendar year (Maradona never surpassed 60). He won the Champions League (Maradona never won the European Cup). He scored and assisted at a prodigious pace, from multiple positions, in multiple games, from his teenage years to now, surrounded by a rotating role, dizzying darts and brilliance with skill and brilliance.
“Messi is Maradona every day. For the last five years, Messi has been the Maradona of the  World Cup,” said Jorge Valdano, who won that World Cup with Maradona. Said in 2013. At worst, he’s almost as good as he’s been in the nine years since.
“Messi is at the level of the best Maradona,” César Menotti, who led Argentina to the 1978 World Cup, said in 2014.
To most rational analysts, Messi is the best football player ever – the most talented and accomplished player. Neither vision tests nor numbers left room for doubt.
But he will never play the primary role that Maradona did.
He would never score the notoriously dodgy goal and “goal of the century” to win the World Cup quarter-finals, with England recently beating Argentina in a disastrous war.
He would never have such a close relationship with his people. There’s a reason why Maradona’s face appears more often than Messi’s on the flags and banners Argentine supporters bring to Qatar. There’s a reason “Diego” appears three times in the national anthem of Argentina’s unofficial World Cup 2022 soundtrack.
“From the sky we can see him,” the fans sang, “and Don Diego and La Tota [Maradona’s parents], cheer for Lionel.”
Messi’s performance in 2022 will mesmerize Argentina in itself. Add to that last year’s Copa America – which Maradona never won – and it has turned the skepticism of most Argentines into eternal love. Messi would be the greatest GOAT of all time if he ends up winning the World Cup.
However, for some, that still doesn’t put him on par with Maradona. Nothing can.
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