Lionel Messi, Maradona’s successor

“God” and “the Flea”

In Argentina, two characters tower above soccer lore: “God” and “the Flea.”

“The Flea” refers to Lionel Messi, so called because he has a growth hormone deficiency that once caused him to be able to sit on benches and have his legs not touch the ground. Messi is the good boy who worked hard and put the hours in to become one of the finest players the game of soccer has ever seen.

On the other side is “God.” This is Diego Maradona, the bad boy super-star who led Argentina to back to back World Cup finals in 1986 and 1990, and winning the first one, all while addicted to cocaine. Along the path to winning Argentina’s second championship (the first came eight years earlier, in 1978) Maradona scored five goals. Of those five goals, four came in the knockout rounds, including the infamous “Hand of God”  goal, and “the Goal of the Century” in the quarterfinal against England. Despite his shortcomings, he is universally adored in Argentina.

Maradona was kicked out of the World Cup in 1994 after the second game in the group stage for using ephedrine, and illegal PED. Ever since then Argentina has been searching for the “new Maradona”, the term used to describe whomever Maradona’s eventual successor would be.  Over the years the list of people referred to as the “new Maradona” grew to include people such as Diego Latorre, Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Franco di Santo, and Carlos Tevez, just to name a few.

None of these players managed to live up to the expectations heaped upon them. Then in 2005 Messi arrived on the first team of Barcelona in La Liga, and began to turn heads. His first goal for Barcelona came at only 17 years, 10 months, and seven days old, making him the youngest player to score for Barcelona in La Liga play at the time. Soon people began to call Messi the “new Maradona”.

Maradona’s successor

In the 2006 season Messi scored a goal against Getafe CF that was very similar to Maradona’s “Goal of the Century.” He ran the same approximate distance, beat the same number of defenders and scored from a position similar to Maradona’s. In a match against RCD Espanyol, he scored a goal almost identical to Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, continuing to strengthen the argument that Lio was Mardona’s successor.

Maradona was asked about Messi in 2006. He responded with confidence: “I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football, and his name is Messi.” This comment has further caused everything Messi does — every touch, every pass, every goal he scores — to be compared to Maradona.

Perhaps Messi can never avoid these comparisons, but he can quell many doubts by winning on Sunday. This inextricable link between the two could be furthered by a World Cup win in each players’ prime — at the same age of 27, no less — but it would also become obvious that Messi must be discussed in his own right.

Messi has won the U-20 FIFA World Cup. He has won four consecutive Ballon d’Or trophies (2009-2012, as well as being the runner-up in 2013), which is awarded annually to the best player in the world for that year. He won Olympic Gold with Argentina in 2008, and he has won 4 UEFA Champions League titles with Barcelona, just to name a few of his many accolades.

Yet the one piece of hardware that matters, a World Cup title for Argentina, has remained elusive. In 2006 Messi scored one goal for the Argentine side as they made their way to the quarterfinals, only to fall to Germany on penalty kicks. In 2010, Messi did not score a single goal in the tournament as Argentina again fell to Germany in the quarterfinals, this time by a score of 4-0.

This time is different, though, and not just because Argentina made it to the finals. The 2014 World Cup has been a revelation for Messi.

The 2014 World Cup

Messi came into the 2014 World Cup carrying the expectation of an entire nation on his shoulders. At 27 he is in his prime, and this could be his last great chance to win the World Cup. Throughout the tournament Messi has delivered time and time again. In Argentina’s Group F opener against Bosnia and Herzegovnia, Messi scored a goal in the 65th minute to help secure a 2-1 win for Argentina. When Argentina faced Iran in the next game, he scored in stoppage time to give the Argentine side a 1-0 victory. In the last game of the group stage Messi scored two of the three goals in Argentina’s 3-2 win over Nigeria.

After exiting Group F with a perfect nine points, Argentina faced Switzerland in the round of 16. While Messi did not score, his pass through the defense in 118th minute was corralled by Angel di Maria and volleyed pass the Swiss goalkeeper for the victory. Messi was shut down for most of the quarterfinal by Belgium’s defense, but Argentina won 1-0.

The semifinal against the Netherlands remained scoreless through extra time. Messi was the first of four Argentina players to score in the shootout, calmly volleying the ball past the keeper to the left side of the net. Argentina won the game by a score of 0-0 (4-2) to advance to their first World Cup final since Maradona played.

On Sunday, Argentina will face Germany for the championship. All eyes will look to Messi as he tries to lead Argentina to its first title since 1986. Should he succeed, his name will be forever linked with Maradona’s in the annals of Argentine soccer lore. Should Argentina lose to Germany, the doubts about Messi will continue to grow, as Argentina wonders if he will ever live up to his billing as the “new Maradona.”

Maradona is a tough act to follow, even a few decades later. But Messi realizes this.

“Even if I played for a million years,” he says, “I’d never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway. He’s the greatest there’s ever been.”

Tim Hanna is a contributing writer of Three for Ten Sports.

Read here for more about some of the highlights of the 2014 World Cup.

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