Why Lionel Messi may never escape Diego Maradona's shadow
Argentina has a love-hate relationship with its soccer stars
Once again Lionel Messi's moment has come and gone. And this time it could be forever.
Having failed, yet again, to win a major trophy with Argentina, the world's best player has decided to retire from international play at just age 29.
The decision will potentially leave him forever in the shadow of Argentinian legend Diego Maradona, especially after his missed penalty against Chile on Sunday in the final of the Copa America.
And while Messi's league accomplishments trump any direct comparisons, at least on paper, with any player past or present — five FIFA World Player of the Year awards, four Champion League crowns and eight La Liga titles — many Argentines still prefer Maradona.
Because not only did Maradona win a World Cup — he restored a nation's pride.
When Argentina played England at the 1986 World Cup, it was the first time the two nations had met in a major sporting competition since the Falklands War between the two countries in 1982. As such, Maradona's two goals to knock the English out of the tournament carried greater significance than the mere result.
We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys, killed them like little birds. And this was a revenge.- Diego Maradona
Maradona admitted as much in his 2006 autobiography Yo Soy El Diego [I Am the Diego]. "Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas [Falklands] war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was a revenge."
It wasn't just the win, but the manner in which Maradona achieved it that elevated him to national reverence. While the English continue to denounce the "Hand of God," Argentines applauded it. By getting away with illegally hitting the ball into the net, Maradona was seen as striking a metaphorical blow against one of the elite in what many Argentines perceive to be an unfair world order. It's an image Maradona has fuelled with tattoos of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and a friendship with former Cuban president Fidel Castro.
While Messi has scored his own hand ball, none of his sporting achievements have ever come close to entering a larger social/cultural ethos.
That's partially because Messi doesn't desire the spotlight — at least not when he's off the pitch. He doesn't get into fights, verbal or otherwise, with rival Cristiano Ronaldo, as Maradona famously has with Brazil's Pelé throughout the years.
In fact, Messi on the whole is a model for good behaviour. In many ways, this has reversed the damage Maradona did to Argentina's soccer reputation with a doping scandal at the 1994 World Cup.
And while Messi is currently being tried for tax evasion, it's considered mundane when compared to Maradona's cocaine addiction or past antics such as firing an air-gun at reporters.
This perceived lack of personality is why Maradona recently remarked that Messi is no leader. And it's why, despite all of Messi's accomplishments, many continue to question his desire to win with the national team. After all, Messi left Argentina when he was 13 to train with Barcelona.
While these criticisms are unfair, the fact remains that Messi has failed to bring home a trophy in four finals appearances, including:
- 2007 Copa America — Brazil 3, Argentina 0.
- 2014 World Cup — Germany 1, Argentina 0.
- 2015 Copa America — Chile over Argentina in penalties (4-1.)
- 2016 Copa America — Chile over Argentina in penalties (4-2.)
Nevertheless, it's worth remembering that Messi had the opportunity to play for Spain, but chose Argentina. Shouldn't this put to rest any questions about his loyalties?
It's clear, however, that remarks like Maradona's and other critics have bothered Messi. In a recent interview with TyC Sports, he admitted to not singing the national anthem because he's tired of people questioning his allegiance.
Perhaps people should instead be asking if Argentina would have made any of the past three tournament finals without him?
It's also worth remembering that Maradona also missed penalties. At the 1990 World Cup, for instance, his shot was saved by Yugoslavia's keeper and Argentina advanced because of the efforts of his teammates.
Sport, like life, can be cruel. Blind luck is often all that separates winners from losers. And, certainly, part of the divide is generational. But Argentines are wrong to dismiss Messi. Thanks to him kids around the world have once again fallen in love with the Albiceleste. All that is needed now is for both Messi and Argentina to realize that they too need each other.
Messi is calling for it, but will Argentina finally embrace him?