Two splendid goals by Lionel Messi against Nigeria (which Argentina beat 3-2) prompts this question among many soccer fans. Who is a better player, Messi now or Maradona then? To answer that question it might be useful to seek help from a Greek oracle, since both are, or were, in Maradona’s case, exquisite players.
Maradona came from the humblest of homes to become the most talked about soccer player of his generation. His two goals against the British team in the World Cup in Mexico City are now legendary. The first, the famous (or, more properly infamous since it was scored with the help of his hand) became the now iconic “Hand of God” goal.
For Maradona, it was revenge after Argentina’s defeat by the British in the Malvinas/Falklands war. Talking later about that goal he declared, “Not even the photographers managed to capture what really happened. And Shilton, [the British goalkeeper] jumping with his eyes shut, was outraged! I like this goal. I felt I was pick- pocketing the English.”
His second goal, however, after he dribbled several opponents –including the goalkeeper- was considered by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) the best goal of the century.
In my native Argentina Maradona was revered, at least until he became the coach of the Argentine team in the last World Cup where Argentina lost to Germany in a dreadful performance. Maradona, who even has a religious movement named after him, The Church of Maradona, lost some of the prestige he had had until then.
Both Messi and Maradona share similar ways of playing. A great speed, a wonderful dribbling ability as well as the capacity to send the ball to the best placed team mate. What is evident in Maradona, however, is his street urchin savvy. An Italian friend told me that when Maradona was playing for Napoli, during a game, while holding the ball he feigned that he was going to fall forwards.
On seeing this, those from the opposing team that were closing on him moved slightly aside. What Maradona was doing, instead, was trying to see who was the best placed among his companions, sent him the ball and it was easy for his team mate to score. According to my friend, the Napoli fans went crazy with enthusiasm and for two solid minutes applauded and cheered Maradona.
In Napoli, Maradona is as revered as in Argentina and portraits of him are placed in many places in the city as if he were a saint, even placing candles under his figure. The Napoli soccer team never won as many championships as when Maradona was playing for it.
Cesar Luis Menotti, who managed the Argentine team that won the 1978 World Cup thus defined Maradona’s talent, “I am always cautious about using the word ‘genius’…The beauty of Diego’s game has a hereditary element –his natural ease with the ball- but it also owes a lot to his ability to learn: a lot of those brushstrokes, those strokes of ‘genius’, are in fact a product of his hard work. Diego worked hard to be the best.”
The physical characteristics of both players are similar; they are both short, sturdy, and have a demoniacal speed which allows them to easily overcome their opponents. Actually, Maradona’s goal of the century against the British team was rivaled, even in its minor details, by a wonderful goal Messi scored against the Spanish team Getafe in 2007.
But it is perhaps in their personal characteristics where one can find the real differences between them. While Messi is quiet, Maradona is boastful. While Maradona was a fighter against the world, Messi seems to be naturally timid, even modest.
They are both strategists and team players, and they are both highly technical with the ball, which seems attached with Velcro to their feet, only to be shot with devastating force when circumstances are favorable. Who is the best, Messi or Maradona? To make a comparison is perhaps not fair. They are both equally talented, each one a great player and both of them a glory to the game.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.