Messi's Maradona moment
There may be one dominant player in the build-up to this World Cup, facing one truly deep question but -- until Sunday at the Maracana at least -- there's still only one other person actually worth asking about it. Argentina legend Diego Maradona, however, did not give a completely committal answer when the grand Lionel Messi debate was put to him back in March.
In one of his more expansive interviews with La Nacion, Maradona was inevitably asked about whether his most worthy successor must finally lift that single elusive trophy in Brazil this summer to cement his place in history. "Messi does not need to win the World Cup to be the best player in the world," Maradona responded. "Winning a World Cup, or not winning a World Cup, does not take away any of what he has done to be where he is."
It is exactly where Messi is, though, that raises far more intrigue than the issue of being the best in the world -- not least concerning Maradona. Messi does not just find himself in Belo Horizonte -- hoping to win a major trophy for his country for the first time in 21 years (the Copa America in 1993 was the last) -- he is preparing for the first World Cup held in Latin America since Mexico 1986, playing the same central position, at around the same age and at the same stage of his career as Maradona was 28 years ago.
Then, Maradona did not just lift the trophy but practically won the entire tournament on his own -- lighting up the pitches of Mexico in a way never seen before or since. Now, Messi has the chance to do the same and lift his career to even greater heights. Those are the stakes, this is the stage: this is Messi's Maradona moment, his Mexico '86. And the parallels run deep.
The months leading up to Mexico '86 did not exactly indicate the majesty to come. For all that Maradona's life was embroiled in constant controversy, there had never been a period when so many disparate anxieties combined at once -- some of them typically self-inflicted. In an interview with El Grafico before the Argentine squad's departure, Maradona put it all in remarkably stark terms. "I feel really alone. I've been feeling like packing the whole thing. ... Seriously. I'm in a bad way."
One anecdote from Jimmy Burns' book "Hand of God" begins to unravel why, and it somewhat cuts against the self-pity. Mere days before the World Cup, Maradona received a call from Naples, informing him of the latest developments in the private issue primarily occupying his thoughts: the then-25-year-old had made his former lover Cristiana Sinagra pregnant, but had since ended the relationship and was refusing to accept responsibility. Sinagra herself was prepared to publicise the birth and take Maradona to court. He was shell-shocked and spent the final days of the build-up wandering among his teammates looking "drawn and tense."
Then there was the issue of fitness. Maradona's ankle injury suffered at Barcelona had flared up again in his first season at Napoli. He faced a brutal regime of painkillers and extreme treatment, even having to wear a boot several times too big to counter the swelling.
For his part, Messi could never be said to follow Maradona's off-pitch escapades, but it has been a difficult season for him. He became a father for the first time in November 2012, and has been battling a nervous vomiting condition all year -- which has seen him regularly throw up on the pitch. "I don't know what it is. But I had a thousand exams," he told the Argentine broadcaster TyC Sports earlier this year. "I start to feel nauseous to the point where I almost vomit, and then it goes away."
Indeed, the forward has not exactly been at his most mobile in a relatively underwhelming season at Barcelona and, despite netting 44 goals in 48 games in 2013-14, he is facing deep football questions for the first time since he was a youngster in 2008.
What appears to be the biggest problem is that he has apparently lost some of his application. There has been an obvious drop in intensity, which has affected his club side and also aided in the loss of his Ballon d'Or crown to Cristiano Ronaldo. That will sting Messi, regardless of their burgeoning friendship. More than anything, the last few months have not seen him reach his previous standards, and he arrives in Brazil on the back of his worst season in five years.
For all that Messi is felt to have unfinished business in the World Cup, it is often forgotten that Maradona was exactly the same before 1986. His main experiences of the competition had been bad ones. Left out of the Argentina squad in 1978, he left 1982 in disgrace after being sent off for a poor foul on Brazil's Batista during the 3-1 defeat in the second round. That in itself was possibly a symbolic and emotional response to the brutal approach he encountered -- not least from Italy's Claudio Gentile in the first game of the second round, a 2-1 defeat. Maradona did offer flashes of inspiration in that Spanish tournament, but not enough to justify his talent.
After breaking a record as the youngest player to represent his country at a World Cup in 2006 but without making much of an impact, Messi's emotions got the better of him in South Africa 2010, as a tournament without a goal ended for him in the quarterfinals. Ironically, the forward broke down crying in then-coach Maradona's arms after the 4-0 defeat to Germany. "I told him that he would have a pile of World Cups to get revenge," Maradona said afterwards. "I said it to him with the heart."
Argentina's beating heart
Maradona was sacked after the 2010 World Cup, but his successor, Alejandro Sabella, finally made Messi the heart of the team, and it utterly transformed his international career. Having been made captain in 2011, the playmaker was by far the dominant player in South American qualifying, with his goal return surging to almost one a game. That echoes Maradona's own dramatic improvement under Carlos Bilardo in the mid-80s, after the coach resolved to make him the team's most important player in every sense.
Bilardo first gave Maradona the captaincy, then built the side around him, then effectively invented wing-backs as he changed his formation to get the best out of him. "I realised from an early stage that he had to have a different regime from the others," the former manager explained. "I said to myself, there is Maradona and then there is the rest of the team." Soon, there would be Maradona and the rest of the world.
Desire to win
Somehow, Maradona managed to distil all his disparate issues from 1986 into one single driving force: to win. It produced the finest individual tournament ever seen. "Never before in more than half a century of World Cups has the talent of a single footballer loomed so pervasively over everybody's thinking," Hugh McIlvanney wrote in the Observer. "Maradona's impact goes far beyond the simple realisation that he is indisputably the best and most exciting player now at work in the game. It is inseparable from the potent sense of declaration inherent in almost everything he has done in the field here in Mexico."
This is what Messi must echo, and it will elevate him. When you look through the careers of these two geniuses beyond these broad strokes, there is that clear divergence. At 26, the World Cup was the single international achievement among the five trophies Maradona had won. For Messi, it is the single international achievement he hasn't won. Whereas that tournament was Maradona's first true declaration of historic brilliance, this could be Messi's final one.
The feeling of winning is something that drives them both. "I would love to win the cup with Argentina," Messi told Barcelona's official website last week. "I'm really jealous of my teammates who've already won it. No matter how much I ask, they'll never be able to describe that feeling to me."
The modern playmaker may not quite have the same extent of elusive talent as Maradona did in that luscious left foot, but he has applied his ability much better, to have the superior career. A World Cup win in, of all places, Brazil, could complete it. On Sunday against Bosnia and Herzegovina, he could start to give that definitive answer. These are the stakes, this is the stage, this is the moment.