Why has Maradona failed to get the best out of the worldÃ¢ÂÂs best player? And whatÃ¢ÂÂs the solution? Simon Talbot investigates
Right from the start everyone desperately wanted Leo Messi to be the new Diego Maradona. Everyone, that is, except Maradona himself. That, at least, is the suspicious conclusion many have drawn from the New Maradona's mostly unhappy time in the Argentinian national team since the Old Maradona became coach.
With Barcelona, Messi has won it all; with Argentina, he almost lost the lot. But why? And what can be done to put it right? El Diego, the theory goes, knows that after countless false idols, there is finally a real pretender to his crown, a man who could be as good or even better than him Ã¢ÂÂ and he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt like it. If Messi succeeds, MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs status as a deity, the man with his own church and a faithful flock, is undermined.
Ã¢ÂÂMaradona is sabotaging Messi," insists Rene Housemann, a member of the 1978 World Cup-winning side. Ã¢ÂÂDiego is burning the lad because he wants to continue being a myth, the greatest player ever. But Messi is already better than him.Ã¢ÂÂ
For others, Maradona remains untouchable; the blame lies elsewhere. If anyone doesn't want Messi to be the new Maradona it is Messi. La pulga has no interest in being el pelusa; quiet, mumbling, almost mute, he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt have DiegoÃ¢ÂÂs character, his leadership. Or his talent.
Worse, having crossed the Atlantic at 12, he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt have DiegoÃ¢ÂÂs commitment to Argentina. Ã¢ÂÂWhat runs through his veins?Ã¢ÂÂ asked OlÃÂ©. Ã¢ÂÂWill Messi ever cry like Martin Palermo does?Ã¢ÂÂ And few Argentinians are as despised as those who depart: itÃ¢ÂÂs no coincidence that ChÃÂ©, Borges and Gardel died elsewhere, none of them embraced as Argentinian heroes.
On the face of it, the theories and accusations are, in Gonzalo HiguaÃÂnÃ¢ÂÂs words, Ã¢ÂÂridiculousÃ¢ÂÂ. Few doubt MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs love for the national team; sabotaging Messi would be sabotaging Argentina. It would mean hacking violently at his nose to spite his face: if Messi wins the World Cup, even single-handedly, MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs status would be enhanced. The man who won two world titles Ã¢ÂÂ as player and coach.
As for Messi, people forget that he went to war with his club to represent Argentina at the Olympics and the Champions League qualifier he missed to face Brazil. "I make the same effort for Argentina as for Barcelona,Ã¢ÂÂ Messi insisted publicly; Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂd love to play as well as I do for BarÃÂ§a.Ã¢ÂÂ
But thereÃ¢ÂÂs no escaping that Messi hasnÃ¢ÂÂt. One cartoon depicts him as a Catalan Superman and an Argentinian Clarke Kent; the albiceleste is his Kryptonite. Ã¢ÂÂIn blue-and-white I feel fragile, weak, a mere mortal,Ã¢ÂÂ says his cartoon character, Ã¢ÂÂfor Barcelona I am Supermessi.Ã¢ÂÂ For those who follow him in Europe, MessiÃ¢ÂÂs Argentina displays are baffling; for those who only follow the national team, so are his Barcelona ones.
He scored just four in World Cup qualifying, few of them significant; 60 percent of those polled by ClarÃÂn would leave him out of the side.
Nor, despite Messi's public insistence that his relationship with Maradona is Ã¢ÂÂbrilliantÃ¢ÂÂ, is there any escaping the fact that emotionally, psychologically, his coach has failed to nurture him like Barcelona. Suspicions about jealousy linger: thereÃ¢ÂÂs little warmth. When Messi scored a marvellous hat-trick against Atletico Madrid, drawing a standing ovation from the Atletico fans, the watching Maradona barely flinched; when Di MarÃÂa scored a nice goal three days later for Benfica, Maradona was on his feet.
Messi is not like Maradona. In a dressing room full of strong personalities, of mickey-taking and machismo, he is uncomfortable. Ã¢ÂÂYou have to give Messi confidence. If you take that away, youÃ¢ÂÂll kill him,Ã¢ÂÂ insists Mario Kempes. Instead, Maradona has laid pressure upon him. Ã¢ÂÂMessi,Ã¢ÂÂ he says pointedly, Ã¢ÂÂshould be the leader.Ã¢ÂÂ Compare that to Pep Guardiola's remark: Ã¢ÂÂMessi,Ã¢ÂÂ he said after a rare bad performance, "can play poorly as often as he wants.Ã¢ÂÂ Guardiola will do Ã¢ÂÂanythingÃ¢ÂÂ to make Messi happy - including providing him with a team that works.
And that's the point. Many Argentinians want Messi to make them play. Maybe itÃ¢ÂÂs the other way round. Ã¢ÂÂI canÃ¢ÂÂt do it all on my own,Ã¢ÂÂ he says. At Barcelona he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt have to; support is always close, the right pass delivered at the right time.
With Barcelona, Messi plays on the right of a front three, free to come into the middle. He has two forwards with him; two midfielders, Xavi and Iniesta, joining him; and Dani Alves bombing past. With Argentina, heÃ¢ÂÂs often one of two strikers and needs a pair of binoculars to see the midfield. Wingers Di Maria and Gutierrez are often wide midfielders more than creative attackers Ã¢ÂÂ against Nigeria Guttierez was right-back. Messi simply doesnÃ¢ÂÂt see the ball: against Uruguay in qualifying, he tried just four runs in the whole game Ã¢ÂÂ half as many as an average match for Barcelona.
Ã¢ÂÂAt Barcelona, Messi gets the ball when his team has already had 20 touches: they leave him one-on-one and he always has three options,Ã¢ÂÂ explains former Huracan coach Angel Cappa. Ã¢ÂÂFor Argentina, they just give him the ball and pray that he sorts everything out.Ã¢ÂÂ
ItÃ¢ÂÂs hard to understand why Maradona doesnÃ¢ÂÂt follow BarcelonaÃ¢ÂÂs tactical lead. One thought that has not apparently crossed his mind is to build the team around Messi. One thought that has is that Messi may yet, for all the shortcomings of the system and the side, simply rescue that team. Ã¢ÂÂMessi,Ã¢ÂÂ says Maradona, Ã¢ÂÂis the worldÃ¢ÂÂs best. Hopefully he can show that by winning the World Cup, then we can embrace him.Ã¢ÂÂ Then? Maradona should try embracing Messi now.