Argentine fans unfurled a banner at a World Cup semifinal match in Sao Paulo depicting Diego Maradona on one side, Lionel Messi on the other and Pope Francis in the middle.
The fans chanted, “Olé, olé, olé, Messi, Messi,” but the relationship with their star remains complicated. A full embrace will not come unless Messi can win soccer’s ultimate prize against Germany on Sunday, just as Maradona did in 1986.
Four times, Messi has been named the world player of the year. He has won three European championships with Barcelona. Some consider him the greatest player of all time. But even if he wins a World Cup, he will not be viewed as Maradona’s equal by many in Argentina, at least not yet, for reasons having as much to do with class, personality, history and distance as with soccer.
“Messi is St. Peter, but Maradona is God,” said Mariano Capretti, 39, whose family owns a clothing factory in Buenos Aires.
To be sure, Messi, 27, is fully welcomed into Argentina’s national team. It has been built around him. He is the captain. He has scored four goals at this World Cup, delivering a late winner against Iran in group play and making the decisive pass in a second-round victory over Switzerland.
So dependent is Argentina on Messi for sustenance that Alejandro Sabella, the coach, said he provided “water in the desert.”
Javier Mascherano, a teammate of Messi’s with Argentina and Barcelona, told reporters: “He gives us illusion, makes us believe we can be champions. He’s from outer space.”
In the eyes of some, particularly the young in Argentina, who were not yet born when Maradona was in his splendor, Messi has already supplanted him as a revered figure.
“If Messi wins the World Cup, he will be the best player of all time,” said Ivan Ramadan, 15, of Buenos Aires. “Maradona is famous around the world, but some people don’t like him. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Messi.”
Still a distrust
There has long been a kind of distrust, a separation, between many Argentine fans and Messi. He left for Barcelona at age 13 to receive growth hormone treatments. He was so small that Gerard Piqué, a teammate on Barcelona’s youth team and its senior team, thought that Messi’s legs looked like fingers. Today, at 5-foot-7, he is nicknamed “la Pulga,” the Flea.
As Messi grew into a star, it was in Spain, not Argentina. He was remote, his biggest triumphs accessible on television, not in the stadium. He did not have the same success with Argentina’s national team, which left the World Cup in the quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010.
But there has since been a perceived elevation in Messi’s commitment, his passion, his sense of obligation to Argentina, particularly in the way he has played in Brazil. And there has been a softening in the suspicions about his loyalty.
“We had the feeling that his emotions, his feelings, were for Spain,” Pamela Homes, 29, a student, said at an encampment of Argentine fans in tents and mobile homes in Rio de Janeiro. “But without a doubt, he is Argentine. We love him. He’s playing with his heart.”
Messi has scored 42 goals in 92 games with Argentina’s national team and five goals in 14 World Cup matches. That compares with 34 goals in 91 national team appearances and eight goals in 21 World Cup matches for Maradona. In three World Cups, Messi has yet to score in a knockout round. Maradona’s goals were more plentiful and urgent. And he has held up the trophy. So apprehension lingers about Messi.
“He’s still in debt to us,” said Oscar Bazan, 59, who drove a month from Mendoza, Argentina, to the World Cup, selling tabletop soccer games to pay for each leg of his trip. “He hasn’t given us yet what he has given Barcelona.”
At a viewing party in a Buenos Aires apartment Wednesday, some fans grew impatient as Messi could not impose his will against rugged marking by the Netherlands. He did not touch the ball in the penalty area until the scoreless semifinal extended after 120 minutes to a shootout.
Elegance or exertion?
He seemed frustrated, static, at times disengaged. Perhaps he was dampened by the absence of his favorite outlet, the injured winger Ãngel di María, or by Sabella’s decision to depend more on order than on creativity in reaching the final. Or perhaps his exertion is not always evident in his elegance.
After 105 minutes, Messi still had not made a clever, feinting run with the ball, a gambeta, at which Maradona was a master, Axel Mendilaharzu, 24, said in annoyance.
“He hasn’t shown up for the match,” said Mendilaharzu, who works in the marketing department for a broadcasting company.
“Why is he so switched off?” said Agustín Calderón, 24, a lawyer in training.
Diego Ferreiro, 56, the owner of the apartment, made a gesture with his hands to show that Maradona played fiercely even with his ankles inflamed.
“This boy, no,” said Ferreiro, who works in the logistics department of a hygiene company. “It’s impossible that he will reach Maradona.”
For many, Maradona’s legend is unassailable. The game was in his blood, not just his head and his legs. Where Messi is middle-class and phlegmatic, Maradona was poor and outrageous, even anarchic. He was a boy of the slums who established his greatness in Argentina before leaving home. His glory was tempered by his demons, including drugs, which only made him more endearing and accessible to many, a man of possibility and frailty.
Messi, meanwhile, has been viewed in Argentina as having a life seemingly too normal and tranquil to stir excitement, said the Argentine novelist Eduardo Sacheri.
“Messi is profoundly Argentine,” said Sacheri, 46, “but what Diego has is that we feel represented both by his virtues and his shadows.”
Maradona’s World Cup
At the 1986 World Cup, Maradona scored or assisted on 10 of Argentina’s 14 goals. In a quarterfinal match, he scored two of soccer’s most famous goals, one on a brilliant slalom through England’s defense and the other on a fisted shot that was said to have been conjured by the hand of God.
The victory was viewed as national redemption for Argentina, which had four years earlier lost the Falklands War to Britain. Two matches later, against West Germany in the final, Maradona provided a vital pass for the winning goal.
“It will always be remembered as Maradona’s World Cup,” Brian Glanville wrote in the book “The Story of the World Cup.” “Seldom has a player, even Pelé, so dominated the competition. In an era when individual talent was at a premium, defensive football more prevalent than ever, Maradona – squat, muscular, explosive, endlessly adroit – showed that a footballer of genius could still prevail.”
He became the most visible symbol of promise in a country that emerged from a military dictatorship in 1983 with a democratically elected president, prosecuted some of the former military leaders and began to experience economic stability.
“The transition of eras was finalized with the 1986 triumph, in which Maradona was the decisive factor,” said Leandro Morgenfeld, 36, a history professor at the University of Buenos Aires. “In a way it worked to vindicate Argentines after years of accumulated anguish: the dictatorship, the Falklands.”
Currently, Argentina is involved in a high-profile legal battle with United States-based creditors, who are demanding full payment on debt defaulted on in 2001. While Messi and his teammates may be distracting the country from that crisis, it does not match the national trauma of the 1980s, Morgenfeld said.
“Today, Argentina does not need to vindicate itself,” he said. “If we win the World Cup, it will be a soccer triumph.”
Warming up to Messi
A thawing in the relationship between Messi and Argentine supporters was evident in an exhibition played before the World Cup in Buenos Aires against Trinidad and Tobago. Fans made a bowing motion to him when he came to the edge of the field to take corner kicks.
And while some criticized Messi for his play in Wednesday’s semifinal, fans gathered afterward at the Obelisk, a national historical monument in Buenos Aires, to celebrate and sing, “By the hand of Leo Messi, we are going to win the Cup.”
Brazilian fans have sung a different song during this tournament, taunting Argentines, saying that Pelé, their idol, scored 1,000 career goals while Maradona put cocaine up his nose.
Argentines have retorted with their own heckling, but it seems clear that not everyone in the country prefers Maradona’s eccentricity to Messi’s seeming rectitude. “I like Messi,” said Gaston Pedroza, 22, a member of a military band from Buenos Aires who was staying at a fan encampment in Rio. “He is a serious footballer; Maradona is loco.”
Before Wednesday’s semifinal, Andres Wasserman, 48, an engineer and trader in electronics from Buenos Aires, said in Sao Paulo that “we don’t like Maradona as our example; we want someone who is serious, respectful.”
Wasserman added, though, that Messi needs a World Cup title to burnish his reputation, “and he knows it.”
Perhaps that is why Messi sprinted so joyously up the field after Wednesday’s victory over the Netherlands. Later, while in doping control, he posted this message via Instagram: “I feel proud to be part of this team! Phenomenons every one of them! What a game they had. This is crazy. We’re in the final! Let’s enjoy it. A big hug to all of Argentina. We just have one little step left.”
In the end, Wasserman said, establishing the Messi-Maradona pecking order was less important than returning Argentina to its hoped-for position as the world’s No. 1 soccer nation.
“With Messi, we can say we have the No. 1 player in the world,” Wasserman said. “The pope is from Argentina. We have many important individuals. But when we try to get together as a country to accomplish something, it’s a problem.”
If Argentina wins Sunday, the legend of Messi will one day be recounted with the same enthusiasm and embroidery as Maradona’s, said Emiliano Quiroda, 23, a student from Buenos Aires who traveled to Rio.
“If we win Sunday, no one can dispute anymore who is better,” Quiroda said. “When we have grandkids, we will talk about Messi; then he will be more popular. If Messi gives us the World Cup, he is going to be eternal.”