The Diego Maradona versus Lionel Messi debate is volatile, and also subjective. But sport creates scope for such debates, which is one of its most enduring features. It’s probably near-impossible to come to a conclusion as regards to who is better, Maradona or Messi. But it’s a debate worth delving into.
Who tops the numbers?
Messi beats Maradona hands down if greatness is judged solely on numbers. Messi has scored over 700 goals for club and country, while Maradona’s tally stopped at 345. Messi has won 10 league titles and four Champions League titles. Maradona, on the other hand, had three league titles and a Uefa Cup. Messi has won six Ballon d’Or laurels to Maradona’s none, for Fifa launched the award in 1991.
So Messi towers over Maradona?
It’s not that simple. Footballing greatness is not judged purely on the number of goals scored and trophies won. First of all, the game was different in the 1980s and early ’90s. Especially in the ‘80s, after Italy won the 1982 World Cup, playing ultra-defensive and reactive football but still subduing Brazil’s on-pitch poetry, catenaccio (door-bolt, a defensive system) or its variants became en vogue. Italy was the world’s football capital then, with Serie A boasting of a big chunk of world stars – Michel Platini, Zico, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard et al.
Maradona went to the relegation-threatened Napoli in 1984, played against the very best of the game, countered catenaccio and man-marking and still shone the brightest, securing his club’s rise in the process. In 1986-87, when he took Napoli to their first-ever Serie A title, Maradona was the team’s tenuous link to world-class. Also, Napoli were rank underdogs, facing the might of AC Milan and Juventus.
Messi has played all his club football for Barcelona, Spanish football’s royalty. Although he has always been the team’s poster boy, he didn’t have to carry the team. From Carles Puyol to Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Neymar (albeit briefly) and Luis Suarez – Messi always had world-class players aplenty by his side.
When Maradona played, football at times was so defensive that Fifa had to launch a ‘go for goals’ campaign. Serie A stats show the goals per match ratio in 1986-87 was 1.93. During Messi’s first season under Pep Guardiola as Barcelona manager in 2008-09, the goals per match ratio in La Liga was 2.90. From the mid-90s and especially since the turn of the century, football started to open its heart and hearth to attackers. Johan Cruyff’s stint as Barcelona manager laid the foundation for a positive change. Messi and the attacking players of his generation benefitted from its trickle-down effect.
Who had a tougher route to success?
Maradona was a by-product of poverty and ferment. His childhood was a spent in extreme poverty at Villa Fiorito, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In 1976 as a teenager, he saw the Argentine coup d’état and the implementation of martial law in the country. Maradona’s persona was shaped by his country’s socio-economic conditions in the late 1970s and early 80s. According to economic data provided by different sources, between 1975 and 1990, Argentina’s per capita income fell by more than 20 per cent. Maradona’s struggles had been immense.
Messi, on the other hand, found peace and prosperity at Barcelona where he went at the age of 13. Barcelona, the football club, tweaked its system and formation to suit him. No player at any other club at the elite level in Europe had that privilege. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Did rule changes help Messi?
On the pitch, Maradona hardly had any protection from match officials. Pictures would attest how Italian defender Claudio Gentile resorted to rugby tackles to stop Maradona during the 1982 World Cup. Even Brazil put aside their samba football to kick the Argentine. Maradona retaliated and got a red card. During his time at Barcelona, Andoni Goikoetxea, the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’, almost ended Maradona’s career.
Messi plays at a time when players, especially ball-players, get a lot of protection from match officials. In 1998, before the World Cup in France, Fifa cracked down on tackles from behind and made it a serious offence. A statement from The International Football Association Board said: “A tackle from behind which endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play.” Fifa added: “Acts of serious foul play are punishable by a red card.” Life became a lot easier for attacking players.
Who made a bigger impact?
In 1986, when the World Cup was played in Mexico, Argentina as a nation was still struggling to come to terms with its defeat against Britain in The Falklands War. Argentina had won the 1978 World Cup on home patch all right, but fixing allegations, against Peru, tainted their success. Four years later, they made a tame exit. Football was Argentina’s only mode of redemption in 1986, and Maradona almost singlehandedly took them to glory. Along the way, he scored his wonder goal against England – Argentina’s arch rivals because of The Falklands War. Every time Maradona played for Argentina, he carried the burden of a nation. Every time he played for Napoli, he carried the hopes of a city, Naples, that was called the “sewer of Italy” in the 1980s.
Messi’s career is far more decorated than his deceased compatriot. Because of his discipline and consistency, Messi has stayed at the top for close to a decade-and-a-half, compared to Maradona’s just six to seven prime years in top-flight football. But Messi is yet to win a World Cup, which remains the missing piece in his glittering career.
In terms of impact, as Maradona passed away on Wednesday, 26 years after he played his last match for his country, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning. Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris proposed that the city’s San Paolo Stadium be renamed after Maradona. It had been 28 years since Maradona left the city.
Maradona won the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament at the 1986 World Cup. Messi won it in 2014. But the latter fell at the final hurdle. In 142 appearances for Argentina, Messi has scored 71 goals as against Maradona’s – who operated from a deeper position – 34 in 91 international matches. But, over four World Cups, Messi hasn’t scored a single goal in the knockout rounds.
Is winning the World Cup a must for ultimate greatness?
This is debatable. Alfredo Di Stefano and George Best never played at a World Cup. But that didn’t make them lesser players. The majority of footballers, though, consider a World Cup triumph as the ultimate accolade. Then again, Maradona himself had defended Messi over not winning a World Cup. “Messi doesn’t need to win the World Cup to be the best player in the world,” Maradona told reporters six years ago.
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