Now 27, this is his moment. Lionel Messi is at the gates with the intention of kicking down the city walls. Rio is all set to be Leo’s.
If he can inspire Argentina to win the World Cup here tomorrow night, then, and only then, can he be considered better than Diego Maradona. This is the context in which many are setting the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany at the Maracana stadium.
It is South America v Europe, a clash of cultures and styles. But it is also perceived by some to be Messi versus Maradona, who no-one is quite sure will even be present inside the ground tomorrow. Accredited as a journalist with a Venezuelan television company, there is a suggestion Maradona has already been banned by Fifa. Still, this fits with the narrative.
There is an on-going civil war in Argentina between those who prefer their geniuses with a twist of villainy and those who do not. But there is another significant difference between Messi and Maradona. One has inspired his team to a World Cup victory and one has not. Not yet, at least.
Messi’s graduation to international footballer supreme is a compelling prospect
Messi is now within shaking-hands distance of the miracle of the Maracana, the term some in Argentina have employed to describe winning football’s greatest prize at the spiritual home of their rivals. It is of course not the only plotline. Germany are bidding to become the first European country to win the World Cup in South America. However, Messi’s graduation to international footballer supreme in Brazil’s backyard is a compelling prospect. Messi is already two years older than Maradona was when the stocky figure hauled Argentina over the finishing line in Mexico in 1986 (he was born just under 12 months later).
This is his opportunity to inspire Argentina to a victory that will eclipse even that story in the Azteca stadium. Had it been Brazil who Argentina were set to meet in the final, then tomorrow’s venue could be considered a hostile one for the player. But Argentina fans were pouring into Rio yesterday. The blue and white-striped No 10 shirt of the Albicileste has temporarily replaced the No 10 shirt of the Selecao as the fashion statement of choice.
If being beaten 7-1 in the semi-final of their own World Cup does not already count as Brazil’s worst nightmare, then it could lie just around the corner.
Messi scored his first goal in the Maracana earlier in the tournament, in a group stage match against Bosnia. Remarkably, this was his first experience of playing in the stadium.
When Brazil host Argentina, the games are usually staged in the hilly football hotbed of Belo Horizonte, the city where the host nation’s collapse on Tuesday provoked such a valley of tears.
Messi: The Movie
Messi’s record in Rio is currently good: played once, scored once. Last week the first film about his life, entitled Messi: The Movie, was premiered in the city, while yesterday saw the launch in Rio of a book on the footballer. The Spanish language edition of Messi, written by Spanish football expert Guillem Balague, is published next week and might quickly require the addition of an extra chapter, depending on what happens here over the next 48 hours.
The event was held at the military fort in Leme, to the north of Copacabana, in a room at the army base with breathtaking views of the breakers crashing onto the beach below. It was attended mostly by Argentinian journalists, who held a minute’s silence following the death of a colleague in a car crash on the day Argentina secured their place in tomorrow’s final. The recent loss of Alfredo Di Stefano was also marked by a minute’s tribute before Argentina’s penalty shoot-out win over the Netherlands. Like Messi, Di Stefano was not loved by everyone in Argentina, the country he, too, left to pursue a career in Colombia and then Spain. “One is a little from where one is born and a lot from where one is fed,” Di Stefano once mused.
These are emotional times for a country still figuring out its relationship with Messi. When Maradona fell, whether following a drugs bust, an alimony case or when he pointed a gun at a journalist, many of his countrymen and women recognised his plight; perhaps even identified with it. Messi is viewed with suspicion by those who wonder whether he even loves Argentina, the country he left for Barcelona when only 13-years-old. According to Balague, whose book has been authorised by the footballer and his family, Messi is aware how much is riding on tomorrow’s match.
“It is not only because he loves the legend of football, and realises the importance of the World Cup,” he said. “For him it feels like he is reaching a climax. He knows he was not always liked by his own compatriots. They said that he wanted to earn money in Euros rather than Pesos and that is why he did not play well [for the national team]. They said a lot of things that really hurt him. And so he realises this is a way of saying: ‘See, I am one of you, I am yours’.
‘Messi represents what we would like to be, Maradona represents what we are’
“Somebody in Argentina told me that Messi represents what we would like to be, Maradona represents what we are,” the author added.
Although he has played well, this is the moment when he stands face to face – nearly - with the legend of Maradona. At 5ft 7in, Messi is now two inches taller than Maradona. Still, there was once a fear that he would never excel because of his diminutive stature. Messi has now lived in Spain for as long as he lived in Argentina but the move to Barcelona was not prompted by whimsy.
The relocation was due to a practical need to continue a hormone-replacement programme, which his club in Argentina, Newell’s Old Boys, said they could no longer afford. Barcelona offered to fund the treatment as well as continue his development as a footballer. One of the consequences is that he lost ties with the country of his birth. When the national team first sent him an invitation to attend a squad get-together, they addressed it to “Leonel Mecci”.
Although others like Maradona and strike partner Claudio Caniggia also pursued their careers in Europe, an element of roguish charm saw their sins easily forgiven. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caniggia comes out in favour of Maradona as best footballer of all time, but Messi, he says, is up there too, with or without a World Cup victory.
“I would have liked to have played with Messi, that would have been great of course,” said Caniggia, who was suspended when Argentina last reached the final in 1990, but scored in the semi-final victory over Italy.
‘He is similar to Diego in many points’
“He is similar to Diego in many points. His left foot is similar. They look similar, small and strong. I could have played with Messi like I played with Maradona.
“Maradona used to play and make other players play. Messi is perhaps better [than Maradona] in the last 20 metres. Maradona used to take the ball from deep, like against England [in 1986]. Messi is not so much like that. He is better if he plays in the last 20 metres – that is better for him.”
This hasn’t been the case in recent World Cup games, where manager Alejandro Sabella, who it has been announced will leave his post following tomorrow’s final, has used Messi in a deeper-lying role. On Wednesday against the Netherlands, Messi struggled to make an impact, shadowed from deep by Nigel De Jong in the first hour and then Jordy Clasie, De Jong’s replacement, in the second hour. But it took the energy of two men to deal with one and a story later emerged that Jorge Horacio Messi, the footballer’s father, has complained that his son was now too tired to excel, that a long tournament on top of another hard slog in La Liga was proving a punishing challenge.
Balague, who says he spoke with Messi as recently as Thursday, claims this report was phoney. “Messi is feeling in excellent shape,” he told me. There have been no dramas of the sort that are currently distracting Maradona, who is reportedly urging Interpol to intervene in the saga of some missing jewellery following a recent relationship break-up.
Who shines brightest? Messi or Maradona?
The main complication for Messi is dealing with the continual argument about who shines brightest – him or Maradona? But then with so many getting exercised about these comparisons, it probably matters least of all to Messi himself.
“It would be good for him, of course,” agreed Caniggia, when we spoke earlier this week, and the question about whether Messi needs validation by inspiring Argentina to a World Cup victory came up.
“But in terms of comparisons to Maradona, he is already like Maradona. He is still one of the best players in history, like Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano – even if he does not win the World Cup.
“Di Stefano and [Johan] Cruyff never won the World Cup, but they are considered two of the best players in history. Messi is the same even if he does not win the World Cup.”
Perhaps. But tomorrow is the pinnacle, the once-in-a-lifetime chance to win a World Cup for Argentina in the country with whom they share such a strong historic rivalry, eclipsing Maradona, and the legend of the fall, in the process.