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Published: Fri, 07/01/2011 - 09:02 Updated: Sun, 07/22/2012 - 09:58

With Messi becoming the all time leading scorer at Barcelona, Hardnews raises the debate of who is a greater player: Maradona or Messi. Even after 25 years of the historic 1986 World Cup, surpassing the magician seems like a sleepwalker’s dream
Sandeep Kumar Delhi

First, it was Pele. Then, Maradona. The world is still confused: so, who is a greater genius? And now, a new name: Messi. The debate has found a new perspective. Who is the greatest footballer of them all?

Ever since Diego Armando Maradona of Argentina hung up his boots (later, celebrating a Che Guevara tattoo on his retired body) there was much speculation about who will be the next footballer to overshadow the legacy of the legend. Lionel Andrés ‘Leo’ Messi, also of Argentina and from Che’s original village, is the answer experts and fans all over the ‘football globe’ seem to be hypothesising. Superbly skilled, he is being applauded as Maradona’s legitimate successor; but has Leo really matched or surpassed his idol?

It is always difficult to compare greatness of different eras. Maradona was pure magic, a talent beyond ritualistic comparison, and definitely the greatest of all times, even greater than Pele who has a better World Cup record than him. Maradona in his pomp and splendour was hypnotic, beyond good and evil, a fantastic revelation constantly unfolding. One can only wonder as to how many goals he would have scored if he had not been fouled or hacked down by his vicious opponents of the 1980s. Despite his short, stocky frame, he looked like an oriental gladiator who ran with wings dodging walls of defenders, reaching the goalkeeper in no time.

Messi defies all barriers whenever the ball is at his feet. He is not as agile as Christiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney, but his ball control and footwork are breathtaking. Experts reckon him as a breath of fresh air with unusual skills, who dictates his own terms on the field.

Leo operates mostly as a left-winger and forward, but is usually found in the middle making unbelievable passes and shooting goals from unbelievable angles. He has this great ability to position himself as a centre forward and deceive goalkeepers and defenders with his enticing dribbles and curling kicks. Even Maradona had this ‘perfect setter’ tag and is still considered one of the best free kick shooters. He could curl the ball over the wall of defenders from short-, long- and mid-range.

Both players have this innate, instinctive, innovative god’s gift to mesmerise audiences with their left foot. While Maradona was more of a playmaker, who often played as an attacking midfielder fulfilling the role of second striker, Leo dons the hat of a left-winger for his club Barcelona and as a forward for Argentina.

At the international level, Messi has to go a long way to even dream of overtaking Maradona’s amazing legacy. Maradona is far too great. He, singlehandedly, led a weak Argentinian team to World Cup glory, scoring wonder goals against England and Belgium in 1986. In the quarterfinal match against England, the world witnessed two sensational goals, both catalogued in the history of goals for two different reasons. The first goal was a result of a handball famously coined by Maradona himself as the “Hand of God”; for his second goal he dodged past six English players for what is now known as the ‘goal of the century’.

However, Messi too achieved a similar feat of scoring a goal jumping in the air in a manner like Maradona’s against Espanyol, while also scoring a goal without passing it to any other player, against Getafe in the Spanish Primeira Liga. Significantly, were not scored international matches.

If we compare the two players at the domestic club level, Messi has an upper hand. Since joining Spanish giants Barcelona in 2005-06, Messi has been an essential part of their successful run and a scourge for his rivals. He has helped his club win three European UEFA Champions League, five La Liga titles, four Spanish Super Cup, a European Super Cup, a World Club Cup and a Copa Del Rey Cup. His critics argue that Messi’s success has been on a higher note because he has played for only one club — till date. Messi joined Barcelona when he was 13 and trained in the famous football youth academy, La Masia.

Maradona, in contrast, was a master of a different class. He created his own aura wherever he played. Be it Argentina, Spain or Italy, Diego terrorised his rivals and flawlessly netted goals before moving to Europe in 1982. He scored 143 goals in just six seasons in Argentina — five for Argentinos Juniors and one for his beloved Boca Juniors, when he won the Argentine Primera Division. His two years at Barcelona (1982-84) are often misunderstood. Thirty-eight goals in 58 games is an excellent figure, but as it is reported and quoted, Maradona was unhappy at the treatment by the team’s defenders and soon opted to move out of the club.

At Napoli, Italy, from 1984 to 1991, Maradona went on to become a ‘living god’ in the eyes of all ‘Neapolitans’ (the club’s fans) after leading the club to their first ever Scudetto title in 1987, and another in 1990. Fans wrote hundreds of poems and articles in praise of the legend. Never has a player been worshipped and admired as much by one club’s supporters as Maradona was. Maradona led Napoli to win the 1989 UEFA Cup, defeating Bordeaux, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Stuttgart on its route to the title.

Messi has so far won three UEFA championships for Barca and the last one, where they defeated Manchester United at Wembley in May 2011, was special. Messi fans often argue that Maradona had many excellent players around him in Napoli: Careca, Alemao, Ciro Ferrara, Bruno Giordano. But, even Barca has a multitude of world class players: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making Barcelona the most formidable football club in the world.

Individually, Messi has been awarded FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010, Ballon d’Or 2009, FIFA World Player of the Year 2009, Olympic Gold Medal in 2008, and many trophies at the national and club level. Maradona won a world cup, league titles in Argentina and Italy, national cups in Spain and Italy, and a horde of individual honours, including best player at the 1986 World Cup, FIFA Goal of the Century, and FIFA Player of the Century (People’s Choice).

What makes this debate somewhat hypothetical is that Messi is only 23 and yet to achieve a lot. Experts believe he is fabulous as long as he plays for his club. In the international arena for Argentina, he does not enjoy the same freedom and breaks under pressure. He did not score a single goal for Argentina in the last world cup in South Africa — much to the disappointment of his coach, Diego Maradona.

There have been great footballers who arrived like shooting stars, dazzled, ruled the game, and then said goodbye on a low note. We remember Maradona and Pele because they ruled the arena for a very long period. Maradona commanded respect of his fans, fellow players and critics for more than 11 years. Surely, he would have scored many more magical goals in the 1994 World Cup had he not been shunted out, charged with using drugs. There is a possibility that Messi can emulate him — only if he maintains the same super-skilled dominance and resurgence for a long period. Surpassing Maradona is like a sleepwalker’s dream: it would be something that football fans might have to wait for a long time to come.

With Messi becoming the all time leading scorer at Barcelona, Hardnews raises the debate of who is a greater player: Maradona or Messi?
Sandeep Kumar Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews