1986 World Cup quarter-final, in Mexico. Argentina lead England 1-0. Diego Maradona, Argentinean captain, gets the ball in midfield. Spinning out of Peter Reid’s attempted tackle, he dribbles up half the pitch, past four other English defenders. Finally, stepping past the diving keeper Peter Shilton, Maradona hammers the ball in while falling. The goal put Argentina into the semi-final, and spurred them on to their second World Cup title. It was voted FIFA’s Goal of the Century in 1999. Of course, I (as an England supporter) refuse to mention Maradona’s other goal in that game.
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It’s argued that Maradona won that World Cup almost single-handedly. He was unanimously voted as winner of the Ballon d’Or as player of the tournament. The Estadio Azteca, where he scored The Goal, has a statue of him on its grounds.
So, what does all of this have to do with Lionel Messi? Well, recently Messi has begun to enter the conversation of “Best Footballer Ever”. Of course, everyone knows that title belongs to Pele, with Maradona a close second. Both of these legends’ careers are defined by a breakout World Cup performance – 1970 with Brazil for Pele, and, obviously, ’86 for Maradona.
Messi has never seemed to be able to do for Argentina what he does routinely for Barcelona. He has just 1 World Cup goal to his name. However, that could change this year, in Brazil. Under new Albiceleste coach Alejandro Sabella, Messi has shown that he’s capable of being dominant on the biggest stage in the world.
Argentina have been picked by many to claim the World Cup in Brazil. Yet, on paper, the Argentines are not the best team at the tournament, now only ranked fifth in the world. Certainly the front three, crowned by Messi, are brilliant. However, there are some significant doubts about the squad’s defensive ability. So, most bets placed on Argentina must be relying on their diminutive captain to finally attain the only trophy he has left to win.
Argentina have been drawn into quite a weak group, with Bosnia-Herzegovina the only team posing somewhat of a threat, with Edin Dzeko up front. So, Messi will be expected to shine in his three group matches. These games will serve as a confidence boost for Argentina, who should march into the knockout stage like worldbeaters.
Maradona’s 1986 team was also, by no means, utterly dominant. That’s why the captain was needed to carry them through the tournament. Now, Messi finds himself in a similar situation. The hopes of an entire nation rest on him.
Usually, it’s unfair to rate a player based on what trophies they’ve won. However, Messi does need to silence his critics, by showing he can perform on all levels of competition. Until then, he’ll always be just a club player.
If Messi can replicate Maradona’s display in Mexico, then surely he will have surpassed his Argentine counterpart. Neither Pele nor Maradona saw the kind of club success Messi has brought to Barcelona. So, if he can lead Argentina to their third World Cup, then I, for one, would be happy to include him in a discussion about the best player of all time.
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