There’s no doubt that many of us—maybe some—have been ensorcelled by Diego Maradona’s 1986 magic. Not surprisingly, no other sorcerer has passed our spell test. That’s being (very) unfair. Lionel Messi has been an equal in skill and execution for nearly two decades. He may not be as fleet-footed as Ronaldinho, as wiry as Cristiano Ronaldo or as fantabulous as Maradona but he has shown us that he’s a complete package. And yet we are still caught in a time warp: 1986.
True, Messi is yet to come up with the mother of all goals, the one that defines greatness. Watch Maradona’s second goal against England in World Cup 1986, beating 5 outfielders and executed in 10 seconds. Called the goal of the century, it’s the pinnacle of speed, dribble, cunning and wizardry. It has been the metric every great footballer has been measured against since. But it’s also freakish as much as it is real.
To be fair, let’s not expect genius to match freakishness. After all, Messi is more human than Maradona; let’s accept him as such. (Unfairly) Sunday’s victory was a confirmation we all wanted, to crown him king. His genius was established long ago, though: around the time he got his first Ballon d’Or in 2009. Six more were to follow during his extraordinary years at Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. But only a World Cup win would confirm his GOAT gene!
Well, the Argentine has always thrived in the other Argentine’s shadow. The languid attacker has often been compared with the oxy-horsy Ronaldo: perhaps football’s ultimate athlete. But even here, Messi has the edge: craft has triumphed speed. Much as you would like to shake him off, Maradona has been Messi’s bugbear, always handy for off-the-shelf comparison. The rivalry, even if it’s filial, has undeniably favoured the 1986 legend.
Let’s suppress the Maradona variable for a while and look at the absolute Messi. In a fascinating piece in The New York Times, David Foster Wallace describes the (Roger) Federer moments: “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” But Wallace dips into the grace and serenity of the moment: “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”
It’s true of Messi as well. At times he looks as if he’s slalom skiing; at other times he looks like he’s navigating through bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the semi-final against Croatia, Messi outwitted, outpowered and out-accelerated defender Josco Gvardiol before darting an assist to fellow striker Julian Alvarez. The genius act took all of 10 seconds and gave a glimpse of the 35-year-old’s peripheral vision. It followed another magical moment, a laser-sharp assist to Nahuel Molina against Netherlands laced with a foreboding of the future. Pep Guardiola, who has coached Messi at Barcelona, describes the legend: “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him.”
And the world watched the magical Messi moments. The 2007 solo goal against Getafe was a leaf out of Maradona’s 1986 book, a game of pace and pivot. That was the template for another impromptu in 2011 against Real Madrid. Then came the 2019 free kick against Liverpool. The lethal left foot has powered Messi’s exploits, but the one that stands out is the stunner against Brazil in 2012. In essence, an all-round performance by a gifted player.
But Messi has other dimensions to his persona. Since they made headlines, Federer (around 2000) and Messi (around 2009) have exhibited a rare equipoise on the ground, speaking with their grace. Whether you call them placid predators or majestic menacers, their calmness becomes an essential armour of their genius. You hardly see the muscle overpowering the mind. They have become the silent statesmen of the global game, the showpieces of human achievement. The games’ defining talismans But the Messi-effect goes beyond individuality. It has made football richer by showing us how genius can be defined in two different ways. Together, Messi and Ronaldo have created epic football with their contrasting styles. To understand football is to understand Messi and Ronaldo. Football was never more beautiful. While Messi’s success could be replicated one day, the world will never see a Messi-Ronaldo super-rivalry again.
With Sunday’s victory, we are unlikely to see too many Messi-Maradona comparisons. 1986 will always be the year of voodoo; 2022 will always be the year of artistry, when genius sparkled in a cup and became legit.
We owe Messi an apology for doubting his genius. He always deserved our vote for the greatest. We missed recognising him in the mist of 1986.
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