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Shadowed by the Hand of God

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This article was first posted on ESPN on June 15, 2014.

EVEN IN THE warehouse studio where artists designed the sets for an upcoming film about his life, Leo Messi cannot escape the oppressive shadow of Diego Maradona. A few months before the World Cup, hanging with some set designers, I played my favorite Argentine mind game: making heads explode by talking s--- about Maradona, the soccer legend.

The young, hip artists laughed, in the way folks from Brooklyn laugh at a Jesus joke that would hurtle someone from Batesville, Miss., into a tongues-speaking meltdown. In the middle of the room, working with a screaming tool on some stubborn metal, a blue-collar guy interrupted, giving voice to the unrelenting working-class beef with Messi's patriotism.

"I'm upset because Messi does not sing the national anthem," he said. "Maradona cried."

"That's because he was high," I shot back.

My translator didn't translate, looking around the room at the sparks and whining blades, then back at me.

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"There are lots of pointy tools here that can be used against you," she said.

LIONEL MESSI IS the best player in the world and maybe the best who ever was, and neither of those things seems good enough for the fans in his home country who still revere Maradona. The myth of the past outshines the reality of the present, which is a bizarre thing to see up close. Right now, Messi is waiting for the games to begin. His best shot at ever winning a World Cup is this summer, while he is at the peak of his talents. Yes, he is only 26, but of late he's looked like a comet losing speed. An athlete's decline comes steep and fast, and by 2018, flashes will remain, but undeniable greatness will likely be a thing of his past.

Messi's window is closing.

That window has remained open longer than it does for most shooting stars. For the past six years, Messi has broken scoring records, brought home trophies for FC Barcelona and left behind a scrapbook of mind-bending moves and shots. A sure way to lose an afternoon is to go down the rabbit hole of Messi goals on YouTube. He's had a far more successful club career than Maradona.

But Maradona won the 1986 World Cup, basically by himself, slaloming through helpless defenses backed by a team of forgotten scrubs. He boasts and brags with the kind of machismo that's beloved in Argentina -- five years ago, he told a room of reporters and cameras to "suck it ... and carry on sucking it," the audio clip of which became a viral ring tone in Argentina -- while Messi is quiet, shy and has not been able to duplicate his Barca success with the national team. Messi hasn't won for Argentina, and he moved to Spain at 13, and he's too focused to sing the national anthem before games. Suspicious fans mine his actions for proof that Leo doesn't love Argentina like Diego loves Argentina.

A POSTER FLOATING around the Internet shows Maradona snorting a line of cocaine, which grew out of the chalk lining a soccer field; this single work of art seemed to make a complicated statement about Maradona's addiction to drugs and the country's addiction to him. On city streets, the endless murals are much more reverential, most calling him a god. His image is revered, even used by artist-activists to cover up political slogans at busy intersections -- taking back the city -- because any politician who hired someone to paint their slogans back over Maradona would be throwing away votes. I never saw a single mural of Leo Messi on the streets of Buenos Aires, and the graffiti aficionado I asked cannot remember seeing one either.

THE CULT OF Maradona, and how it exerts powerful influence on the career of Messi, mirrors the story of the past 80 years in Argentina -- during which the country has gone from one of the world's fastest-growing economies to one of its most stagnant, a decline described bluntly in a recent Economist cover story, which used a picture of a dejected Messi as its main art. Understanding Maradona, and therefore Messi, requires understanding a uniquely Argentine political philosophy called Peronism. Composing a coherent definition is nearly impossible, but I'll try by telling the story of Juan Peron, the father of Peronism.

Peron was a former general who got himself elected president of Argentina in 1946, just after the war. Most Americans know him through the pop culture obsession with his beautiful and popular wife Evita. His policies championed the working class, which adored him despite his dark side: He studied fascism in Mussolini's Italy and gave asylum to fleeing Nazi war criminals, allowing mass murderers to sip coffee in linen suits and wide straw hats.

The military overthrew Peron in 1955 and sent him into exile. It outlawed the Peronist party. For almost two decades, left-wing activists turned Peron into an idea, keeping some parts of his story and forgetting the inconvenient brushes with fascists and Nazis. In 1973, backed by the left, he returned from exile and became president again. He then turned his back on those idealistic young supporters, and they took up arms and went to the mountains like their hero Che Guevara. When Peron died in office, the country devolved into open warfare, with killings on both sides. The public pushed the military to intervene, and on March 24, 1976, it did, taking control of the country, waging what came to be known as the Dirty War against its political enemies: kidnapping civilians, torturing them to get names of more enemies to kidnap, then throwing them alive into the ocean so the bodies wouldn't be found later in mass graves.

Today, left-wing president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a former guerrilla supporter, patterns her public life after Evita and calls herself a Peronist, as have four of the past five presidents, no matter how their own philosophies differ from one another's, and from Peron's. History never trumps myth in Argentina. The national curse flows from this deep need to invest emotionally and spiritually in a savior. Messi is merely a great athlete and not a symbol to be adored, not yet anyway. Maradona is a modern-day saint, a vessel for hopes and dreams, and nothing he does can destroy the myth that millions of people want to believe.

That's Peronism.

IN EARLY 1981, the band Queen played a run of sold-out shows in Argentina. The government had banned foreign -- read: English -- music from the radio, saber rattling at Margaret Thatcher, who refused to acknowledge Argentina's claim for the Falkland Islands, another slight in a deep well of colonialism-based resentment. Attending the concert of an English rock band a few years earlier would have been an enormous risk, but Argentina was changing, rebelling against its military overlords. A few weeks after the tour, the ruling general Jorge Videla handed power to another army officer, the dictatorship losing the popular support that inspired the coup in 1976.

It was a dying regime ruling with terror, and in the months after the Queen concert, the plan to invade the Falkland Islands took shape as a way to rally the nation and rediscover the spark of faith and power that had gone dark. The war began about a year after the concert, fueled by a bitter anti-English feeling that roiled the people of Argentina. Everyone knows what happened in the Falklands.

Argentina got its ass kicked.

The dictatorship fell. A new democracy rose slowly from the ashes of shame and defeat, the first presidential election in a decade finally held in 1983. Since 1930, Argentina had careened between civilian officials and military coups -- in 1989, the first president since before World War II successfully handed power to an elected successor -- and now a vision for a new kind of country percolated in the minds and hearts of the people. Argentina tried to reinvent itself, and in the earliest moments of this reinvention, its soccer team beat the English in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal.

At 25, Maradona scored two goals, one in a magical run through the inferior 
England defense, and the other with a blatant hand ball, which the referees missed. He taunted the English after, with his "hand of God" quote, both denying and winkingly admitting that he'd punched the ball in the goal. For that, Argentina will love him forever.

"That's why Messi will never be Maradona," my translator, Ana Laura Montenegro, said.

A SIDE NOTE: Queen invited Maradona onstage for its show. Someone took a famous photograph of the soccer star backstage with one of the biggest bands in the world. In the photo, Maradona wore a T-shirt covered with an enormous Union Jack. My cabdriver, on the way to the movie set design studio, told us the story. If Messi had worn a Union Jack T-shirt -- even last month, forget in the year before Argentina went to war with England -- people would have gone nuts.

Nobody really questioned Maradona's patriotism -- or anything else. "He's forgiven," the cabdriver said, earnestly, "because it's Maradona."

HERE ARE SOME of Maradona's many transgressions forgiven by the people of Argentina: He drop-kicked an opponent in a game. Photographs emerged of him partying with the Napoli-based Camorra, perhaps the nastiest of the nasty Italian Mafias, just before his Napoli side may or may not have thrown Italy's Serie A championship. He tested positive for coke. An Italian prosecutor charged him with supplying cocaine to hookers.

The hookers told unbelievable tales of Caligula-like orgies, fueled with cocaine and liquor. The word "fueled" appeared in a lot of stories, as did "allegedly." A Brazilian prostitute named Susy said Maradona hated condoms and loved sucking her big toe. Cops in Buenos Aires arrested him with a half-kilo of blow and he walked. He ran through four stoplights in Seville, Spain, in his Porsche. Cops chased him for a mile before he stopped. A year later, he was sent home from the 1994 World Cup for performance-enhancing drugs. He allegedly smuggled more than 3 kilos of cocaine to Rome for the Italian mob. He suffered a heart attack after an alleged overdose. He went to rehab. Photographers caught him having coked-out sex parties in rehab. After the birth of an illegitimate son, Maradona refused a relationship with the boy, even after a court ordered him to pay.

"A judge has obliged me to pay support," he said at the time, "but that does not obligate me to feel love for him."

He suffered another reported coke-induced heart attack and lived. Back in Spain, blitzed on cocaine and booze, he and two prostitutes got trapped in a hotel elevator, which he kicked until his foot bled. By 2005, he weighed 266 pounds. He was 5-foot-5, which basically made him a square, or, in keeping with the theme, a bale of cocaine. And after all of this, before the last World Cup, the soccer powers in Argentina looked around for a coach, considered all the options and then, of course, hired Maradona, a drug addict, to help Messi finally play well for his country. A comparison in American life is difficult, but imagine for a moment that the U.S. Olympic Committee handed Dennis Rodman a clipboard and unlimited authority and told him to take the basketball team to Rio in 2016.

In South Africa, Argentina was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Before and during the tournament, Maradona appeared palpably jealous of his young star. Messi, the greatest goal scorer in the world, didn't score a single time. His coach placed him in the midfield, charged with serving up the ball to his teammates, which is like making Peyton Manning run the triple option.

ONLY IN ARGENTINA could you draw a logical and undeniable causal line between a long dead president and Leo Messi's failure to win a World Cup, but these things are inexorably linked: Peron begat the dictatorship, which begat the Falklands and Dirty wars, and the national shame that followed, which begat the legend of Maradona, who purged that shame with his play, which begat the cloud of expectation and comparison hovering over Messi's daily life -- and the way he'll be remembered when his career is done.

His best shot of breaking free from this cloud is in Brazil, where the stage is set for an athlete to again bring home a symbolic victory tied together with a sporting one. Argentina's economy is in trouble; earlier this year, the peso was devalued, gutting the savings of many citizens. Bringing dollars into the country, to protect investments, is banned. A presidential election that will determine the economic future of the country is set for next year. The nation's policies, born partly out of a political spasm against the dictatorship, have made the global credit markets unwilling to step in and help the economy grow. Argentina is at a crossroads, which means Messi has arrived at the right place in history at the right time.

He won't ever have a better chance.

"We all know that these situations are not eternal," says influential sports journalist Ezequiel Fernandez Moores. "But we need to have Messi in the top now. Not forever. Now. If Argentina won the World Cup in Brazil, Messi could be bigger than Maradona."

THAT SEEMS LIKE a stretch, but during the two weeks I spent in Buenos Aires, a surprising pattern did emerge. Many of the young creative people I met were born in the mid-1980s, after the return of democracy. None of them has ever lived under threat of a coup, or the iron rule of the military. Their self-image and hopes for the future differ wildly from their parents'. Messi was born in 1987. Ana, my translator, was born in 1985. So was Nicolas Romero Escalada, a well-known graffiti artist who keeps a studio in the loft above the set design workshop we visited. We found him sitting at a long table in the middle of the room.

"I prefer Messi than Maradona," he said. "I prefer the quiet Argentines, you know?"

The macho bravado of Maradona, behavior almost always used to hide shame and insecurity, isn't as important to a more confident generation now approaching their 30s. Argentina is becoming their country, and they find themselves more represented by the excellence and artistry of Messi.

Escalada sat at his long table. On the wall to the left were sketches he made for a large Messi mural; recently, he flew to London to paint what doesn't yet exist in Buenos Aires: an enormous version of the Barcelona striker. In a subtle way, Escalada said, even the street art around town of Maradona is a tribute to the artistry of Messi. While the generation that loves the reverent tributes needs the self-esteem blanket of a myth writ large, the artists who create them see themselves in the beautiful play of his younger rival. "This guy represents the new generation," Escalada said. "I'm more connected with Messi than Maradona."

MARADONA'S WINDOW MIGHT be closing, as insane as that sounds. During my trip, a Buenos Aires cabdriver -- long his target demographic -- spat the word "cocaina" when I brought up Diego in my awful Spanish, and said he liked Messi. It's just one guy, but that kind of disgust would have seemed impossible just a few years back. Four years ago, when contacted by an American magazine, Maradona demanded $140,000 for an interview. His time is slipping away, and his acolytes are growing older, replaced by a generation that doesn't need his proxy of confidence. Four months ago, for the photos on the cover of the magazine in your hand, Messi posed for free. He's moving fast, looking forward, not yet trying to wring every last drop of self-benefit from work he can never duplicate. He doesn't know the things Maradona knows about how quickly future becomes past. Right now, Messi is still working with the talent of youth, complemented by the smarts of age. He's face-to-face with his best chance to live for a generation on city walls, his flaws and small human traits stripped away, replaced by a myth. First, Messi needs to win a World Cup. His window of opportunity is nearly closed too.

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