The stage was set, 28 years after Maradona grabbed the 1986 World Cup by the horns and led Argentina to victory near single-handedly in Mexico, the world was watching, and expecting Messi to do the same in Brazil. The Barcelona man had already dragged a limp Argentina side to the final, although not with the arrogant saunter of his predecessor, but rather with occasional moments of brilliance and narrow margins. Before a ball was even kicked, Brazil 2014 had been billed as Messi’s moment to cement his place as amongst the best to have played the game, but even if it had been La Pulga lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, he could never surpass Maradona within Argentine folk law.
Messi’s achievements at club level are unimpeachable, he has won everything possible as the beating heart of one of the best football sides to grace the game, but what he has not done, and looks unlikely to ever do is perform for his people and dazzle in the Argentine Primera División. El Diego is a legend at Argentinos, Boca Juniors, even Newells where he made just five appearances; he has given the Argentinian people goals and trophies, not for some foreign club, but for their local sides. More than that though, Maradona’s connection goes beyond the football pitch; he is from the barrio, he understands the poverty of much of the Argentine working class, and his footballing education was earned on the streets of a Buenos Aires shantytown. This affinity is something that Messi can never have, having left the country of his birth for Catalonia before even his teenage years. He has never made an appearance for an Argentinian club and his upbringing within footballing has been shaped by Johan Cruyff’’s influence over Barcelona’s La Masia academy, and the Total Football inspired style that would eventually evolve into Guardiola’s tiki-taka.
There are of course many similarities between Messi and Maradona, the remarkable close control, the unparalleled dribbling ability, the terrifying ability to score goals, they share all these traits in common, but what Messi does lack is viveza criolla, or native cunning. Indeed, Messi is often praised for his fair play and how free his game is from the histrioinics that mar the play of Robben and Ronaldo. However, how this often seems to translate, to the Argentine people at least, is as a lack of passion. It was rare to see Maradona be disposed, yet he still displayed that fierce desire to win, epitomised by his notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal. Bemoaned and criticised by the rest of the world, it is a moment idolised by the Argentine populace, an insolent example of viveza criolla, and a defiant, highly political act born on the streets of Buenos Aires. Maradona scored the ‘Hand of God’ against England in the 1986 quarter final, and followed that effort with what is regularly referred to as the ‘Goal of the Cenutury’ and often dubbed the best individual goal of all time, inspiring his side to victoy. There is no doubt that Messi is capable of the brilliant, he delivers it with nonchalant ease and regularity, and none of his four goals at the World Cup were simple. Whether Messi has that ruthless charisma and leadership though is subject to debate.
There was a moment during the final, with the match heading into extra-time, and the Argentine side gathered for Alejandro Sabella’s team talk, Messi walked away from his manager and teammates. It was time for the Albicelestes’ captain and best player to inspire his colleagues, yet when Sabella asked for the players’ input it was Mascherano who stepped up and rallied the Argentinians. Messi struck the figure of a man apart, perhaps a man frustrated at his underperforming teammates, an opinion only reinforced by the bitter expression on his face as he collected a hollow and ultimately undeserved award for player of the tournament. Concerns about getting the best out of Messi dominate all discussion of La Selección, and it was worrying to hear players such as Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta openly admit that getting the ball to Messi was Argentina’s main tactic. Argentina are all about the cult of the individual, whereas the German’s bow down to the collective, and was cohesive teamwork that ultimately won the day.
The differences between the German and Argentinian national sides are routed in contrasting cultures and certainly in contrasting footballing history, whereas Argentina treat Maradona with a religious reverence, German fans can look back on great teams. Praise has been heaped upon Thomas Müller for his goal scoring in Brazil, and rightly so, but his form isn’t the reason for the German’s triumph any more than that of Neur’s, Krool’s, or Klose’s. Die Mannschaft frontto back were willing to work hard and sacrifice for the good of the team, Low didn’t need to rely on getting the best out of one player, indeed, during the early stages of the World Cup the Germans were less than impressive, but still ground out results as a team. In the mauling of Brazil, the Germans selflessness was frustrating at times, as if everyone preferred that their team mate scored, but this spirit was what would win them the competition.
When Mario Gotze finally scored the winning goal, it came not out of dominance, but persistence, and if anything Argentina had, up until that point, had the game’s better chances. Higuaín was particularly guilty of spurning opportunities, but Messi also had chances to win the World Cup for Argentina. With the Balon D’or runner up quite fairly receiving criticism for his lack of form, fans of Messi have been quick to label critics ‘haters’ and paint the Barca man as the victim of a smear campaign, defending him on the grounds that he was let down by his colleagues, and even that the formation did not accommodate him well enough. Whilst Messi’s fellow forwards certainly underperformed, the formation argument has little substance, with Sabella having constructed his 4-3-3 with the sole purpose of bringing the best out of Messi, sacrificing defensive solidarity in favour of making the most of the wealth of Argentinian forwards.
This strategy worked during qualification; with Messi arguably displaying his best ever form in an Argentina shirt. Sabella dropped fan favourite Carlos Tevez due to his inability to work with Messi, and the system was a success, Argentina qualifying and scoring lots of goals. Therein though lies the problem, it is a formation that only works when Messi is at his best, which he certainly wasn’t in Brazil. Germany showed what can be achieved when I side is greater than the sum of its parts, whilst those reliant on a star individual such as Portugal, Brazil, and even to a lesser extent Colombia, all fell short of the mark. Another example is France, who defied expectations due to Dechamps making the bold decision to leave certain star names, Samir Nasri in particular, out in favour of playing the best team available. Occasional brilliance got Argentina to the final, but they never performed well as a team, and with his fellow forwards not firing, Messi was unable to inspire them to better form, and unwilling to sacrifice his own game in order lay on goals for his teammates. Messi tried to outshine Maradona and do it all himself, but ultimately was no match for the German’s efficiency and selflessness.