In the wake of that superlative five strike by Leo Messi, the question naturally turns to his place in the pantheon of greats. He’s already scored the exact same number of European goals, 49, as Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid icon leading to inevitable comparisons between the two players separated by two generations and two great rivals. Cristiano Ronaldo’s fond hope when he joined Real was to don the mantle of Di Stefano but there appears to be no rush to judgment on that account. The focus is firmly on Messi’s other worldly exploits.
The more pertinent and contentious comparison would be to Messi’s countryman and Barca predecessor, the outsize Diego Maradona. Has the 24 year old at this juncture surpassed Don Diego? The biggest bump on what would otherwise be smooth sailing would be the 1986 World Cup also called the Maradona World Cup. In which the former Napoli striker turned the world of football upside down, taking a marginally talented Albiceleste and single handedly transformed them into champions. The sight of Maradona sprinting through midfield as the English stood mesmerized to score that goal still remains the iconic moment of world football. A grown man like Terry Butcher still rendered apoplectic quarter of a century after that match. That along with the Marx Brothers would be on a time capsule of life in the 20th century to be unearthed by a future generation or aliens.
A quarter of a century later, given the spades of talent at its disposal regularly earning them top billing, the Argentinians have never been able to replicate that feat. Messi’s less stellar national record still stands in the way of a direct line by line comparison. He’s yet to capture the imagination of his countrymen like the Church of Santa Maradona as he remains a distant son to his origins.
There are other factors which have less to do with football. For Maradona, a Che Guevara tattoo emblazoned on his arm, wearing his politics on his sleeve was equally important. In fact much before it was cool to hate Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter, Maradona was already exposing them for their ties to crony capitalism and demanding transparency from FIFA. His best moments both as player and activist were achieved well beyond his comfort zone. In the early 80’s, before Maradona, South American football was still a relatively unknown commodity. His trailblazing exploits changed the landscape. Now, all European clubs have scouts in the leagues at the ready to swoop down to poach any upcoming talent.
His ill fated Barca career was a fugue of madness clashing with president Jose Luis Nunez and coach Udo Lattek before Luis Cesar Menotti’s calming influence saw him play some of his best football, instrumental in the 1983 Copa Del Rey victory beating Real Madrid. But hepatitis and a terrible tackle by Antoni Goikoetxea, the Butcher of Bilbao broke his ankle sidelining him for almost four months. By the time he came back, his relationship with Nunez was irrevocably broken. It was when he started taking drugs, to alleviate pain and personal turmoil. His time at Barca came to an ignominious end with the now famous clash on the field with Bilbao in the 1984 Copa Del Rey final where Maradona drop kicked one of the players.
To relocate to Napoli, a club unfamiliar with success and hated intensely by the northern clubs was an act of faith. To take it to the level that Maradona did in winning an unprecedented Scudetto in 1987 and then repeating the feat in 1990 was nothing short of a miracle. To this day, Napolitanos weep at his name enshrining him at the Church of Santa Maradonna. He did what no one thought possible. As the wise Eduardo Galeano writes, “thanks to Maradona, the dark south finally managed to humiliate the white north that scorned it.” By then his addiction to drugs had exposed him to the underworld of the dangerous Camorra, played havoc with his personal life, and it all hit rock bottom with his arrest on the pitch in the 1994 World Cup.
Maradona’s complex, multi-faceted personality is driven by “bronca”, an Argentinian word which means anger, fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent. His genius was driven by this most extreme of emotions. He did not like Daniel Passarella, he hated him. Passarella was the status quo, the patrician gatekeeper to Argentinian football and hence the enemy. The players he loved reveal his rebellious streak – Zico, Cantona, Kempes, Batistuta, Matthaus, Bochini, Keegan, Schuster, Zamorano, del Piero, and Weah. Players who questioned authority and played with a passion and joy for the beautiful game. On the other side, the more cerebral Zidane, Platini, Ayala, Cruyff, and Pele, the symbols of officialese were targets of his wrath. Platini was too cold according to Maradona, “he never appeared to have fun playing football.”
One of his idols was Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula 1 race car driver, whose style of racing was always a dance with death. Senna like Maradona was born poor and his philosophy was tinged with a hard edged nationalism and a godliness. As Maradona puts it, it took balls to put pedal on the metal in the rain when everyone else was playing safe. His all or none outlook tragically cost Senna his life.
Marcela Mora Y Araujo in her foreword to Maradona’s autobiography mentions Juan Sasturain, an Argentinian writer, who compares Maradona to an artist because he didn’t interprest, but like all great poets and painters he created something when nothing existed. But art creates something by destroying simultaneously. Maradona would be like Shiva in Hindu mythology, the destroyer of cant and banality, in order to set free his fertile imagination and feet, to give us immense pleasure even as he faced his inner demons which nearly destroyed him.
Messi in comparison is a vanilla personality. Who wouldn’t be face to face with Maradona? He has played well within his comfort zone. After all, he was just a boy when he went to La Masia and he has never known any other club other than Barcelona. He found a perfect mentor in Pep Guardiola and his team mates would fill a World XI. At 24 years, he’s only going to get better, without Maradona’s self destructive streak, to slow him down. There are signs too that he’s prospering at the national level. His displays against Brazil and Switzerland in recent times show a footballer who can tear a team apart all on his own. There was every indication that he would have had a significant impact in the previous World Cup, if Maradona had decided to retain Juan Sebastian Veron. That bit of counterintuition was rightly criticized and the fallout between the two still dominates the national discourse. As a betting man, you would be forgiven if you thought Maradona did that on purpose.
Messi well might be an incomparable footballer. Maradona is, well, incomparable.