Maradona's Messi conundrum

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Why has Maradona failed to get the best out of the world’s best player? And what’s 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 – and he doesn’t like it.
If Messi succeeds, Maradona’s status as a deity, the man with his own church and a faithful flock, is undermined.

“Maradona is sabotaging Messi," insists Rene Housemann, a member of the 1978 World Cup-winning side. “Diego is burning the lad because he wants to continue being a myth, the greatest player ever. But Messi is already better than him.”

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 doesn’t have Diego’s character, his leadership. Or his talent.

Worse, having crossed the Atlantic at 12, he doesn’t have Diego’s commitment to Argentina. “What runs through his veins?” asked Olé. “Will Messi ever cry like Martin Palermo does?” And few Argentinians are as despised as those who depart: it’s no coincidence that Ché, Borges and Gardel died elsewhere, none of them embraced as Argentinian heroes.

On the face of it, the theories and accusations are, in Gonzalo Higuaín’s words, “ridiculous”. Few doubt Maradona’s 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, Maradona’s status would be enhanced. The man who won two world titles – 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,” Messi insisted publicly; “I’d love to play as well as I do for Barça.”

But there’s no escaping that Messi hasn’t. One cartoon depicts him as a Catalan Superman and an Argentinian Clarke Kent; the albiceleste is his Kryptonite. “In blue-and-white I feel fragile, weak, a mere mortal,” says his cartoon character, “for Barcelona I am Supermessi.” For those who follow him in Europe, Messi’s 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 Clarín would leave him out of the side.

Nor, despite Messi's public insistence that his relationship with Maradona is “brilliant”, is there any escaping the fact that emotionally, psychologically, his coach has failed to nurture him like Barcelona. Suspicions about jealousy linger: there’s 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 María 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. “You have to give Messi confidence. If you take that away, you’ll kill him,” insists Mario Kempes. Instead, Maradona has laid pressure upon him. “Messi,” he says pointedly, “should be the leader.” Compare that to Pep Guardiola's remark: “Messi,” he said after a rare bad performance, "can play poorly as often as he wants.” Guardiola will do “anything” 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 it’s the other way round. “I can’t do it all on my own,” he says. At Barcelona he doesn’t 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, he’s 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 – against Nigeria Guttierez was right-back. Messi simply doesn’t see the ball: against Uruguay in qualifying, he tried just four runs in the whole game – half as many as an average match for Barcelona.

“At 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,” explains former Huracan coach Angel Cappa. “For Argentina, they just give him the ball and pray that he sorts everything out.”

It’s hard to understand why Maradona doesn’t follow Barcelona’s 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. “Messi,” says Maradona, “is the world’s best. Hopefully he can show that by winning the World Cup, then we can embrace him.” Then? Maradona should try embracing Messi now.

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