BUENOS - Lionel Messi's passionate performances at the Qatar World Cup are earning him oodles of love from Argentines, but their old favouritism for Diego Maradona may resurface unless he brings home the trophy on his final attempt.
The two diminutive and brilliant No. 10s have dazzled the world with their prolific goalscoring and strikingly similar styles, relying on low centre of gravity to swerve and slalom their way past defences, ball glued to flashing feet.
Yet only Maradona, who died two years ago, has won the biggest trophy. He dragged a mediocre team behind him in 1986 when his "Hand of God" goal against England became a symbol of national defiance after the shame of the Falkands War defeat.
For years, Argentine fans said that no matter how many Ballons d'Or and trophies Messi won with Barcelona, he could never match Maradona until he too lifted a World Cup.
And why, they asked, was he so shy and introverted whereas their lovable rascal Maradona had entertained them so richly with jokes, songs and expletive-laden tirades against authority?
Was Messi even a true Argentine anyway, some grumbled, especially older fans. After all, he left for Spain at 13 while Maradona was more one of their own, born in a slum and working his way up through local clubs including Boca Juniors.
Messi has, of course, enjoyed more success in sheer numbers of goals and honours than Maradona, even surpassing his national appearances this week as he drove Argentina into the last 16 of the World Cup. And he has kept himself in great shape whereas Maradona succumbed to drugs and wild living in ways that frustrated and saddened even his most loyal fans.
Those close to Messi say that though his shyness may have disguised it in the past, there was always nothing he longed for more than to bring glory to Argentina. That passion was laid bare when he broke down in tears after leading Argentina to the Copa America in 2021, their first major trophy in 28 years.
"Argentines always had a love-hate relationship with Messi," said 44-year-old fan Gustavo Franchini in Buenos Aires.
"We always compare him with Maradona, who won the World Cup 36 years ago, since when we haven't won again ... Everyone says he has to win the World Cup to achieve Maradona's stature and many, like me, think that even then he doesn't match him," he added, noting how Maradona carried the 1986 team almost solo.
In Qatar, on Messi's fifth and final quest, he has been the beating heart of the squad and Argentina appear to have as good a chance as any to lift the trophy on Dec. 18.
Packing out stadiums in Qatar and bars and parks back home, fans have backed Messi throughout, cheering his two goals, encouraging him after a penalty miss, and parading his image proudly on myriad flags and banners.
Many of the banners show Messi and Maradona together, some depicting the late No. 10 smiling down from heaven at his heir. And Messi himself has opened up emotionally to rally the team and nation after their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. He has celebrated goals wildly with fans and lead celebratory songs on the pitch and in the changing room after they beat Mexico and Poland.
"After the Copa America he seems to have eased up, he's more relaxed, enjoying it," said another fan Facundo Moreno, 39, also in the Argentine capital.
"For me, Messi has always felt and done his all for the national team, from his first game until now. He's my idol," he added. "Maradona and he have totally different personalities but on the pitch they both do the same."
Marcelo Sottile, a sports journalist and author of a book about Messi, said that while his clean-cut image and polite persona mirrored the sort of person Argentines aspired to be, the rebellious Maradona reflected more of who they really were.
However, there is a generation gap among those who remember and revere Maradona most and younger fans less prejudiced against Messi, he told Reuters.
"I have an 18-year-old son who never questioned Messi, who never said 'you play well for Barcelona but not for Argentina'," he said. "Messi has suffered from being a venerated star in Barcelona but often under attack here in Argentina."
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Doha, Lucila and Lucila Sigal in Buenos Aires; editing by Pritha Sarkar