Messi or Maradona?

After Messi’s exceptional performance in the World Cup an old controversy continues. 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 –who died on November 25, 2020– came from the humblest of homes to become the most celebrated soccer player of his generation. His two goals against the British team in the 1986 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 about that goal he said, “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 is still worshipped.

Both Messi and Maradona share similar ways of playing: great speed, a wonderful dribbling, and the capacity to send the ball to the best placed teammate. What was evident in Maradona, however, was his street urchin savvy.

An Italian friend told me that when Maradona was playing a game for Napoli, he feigned that he was going to fall forward while still holding the ball. On seeing this, those from the opposing team moved aside. What Maradona was doing, instead, was trying to see who was the best placed among his companions, sent him the ball and so it was easy for his teammate to score. According to my friend, the Napoli fans went crazy with enthusiasm and for several minutes applauded and cheered Maradona.

In Napoli, Maradona is still as revered as he is in Argentina, and portraits of him are placed throughout the city as if he were a saint, with candles under his picture. The Napoli soccer team never won as many championships as when Maradona was playing for it. Maradona even has a religious movement named after him called The Church of Maradona.

Cesar Luis Menotti, who managed the Argentine team that won the 1978 World Cup defined Maradona’s talent this way, “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. It is in their personal characteristics where one can find the real differences between them. While Messi is quiet, Maradona was boastful. While Maradona was a fighter against the world, Messi seems to be a naturally timid, even modest person. While Maradona was addicted to drugs, Messi is a clean player, with a normal family life.

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 better, Messi now or Maradona then? To make a comparison is perhaps unfair. They are both equally talented, each one a great player and both of them a glory to the game.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”