I was talking to my friend’s son, who is 16 and has been passionately watching the World Cup matches like many of us. He is a fan of the Argentina football team, and, of course, of Lionel Messi, the magician. This boy reminded me of myself when I was 16 years old, and another Argentine magician was displaying his unearthly skill to steal the hearts of millions around the globe.
When I ask myself why I am a diehard Argentine football supporter, the answer seems obvious. While watching any sporting event, quite often you tend to support a team and one or a few players. When I was a young boy of 10 years, say, Argentina was the reigning world champion. That was the pre-internet, pre-cable TV era. There was no social media, and there were few news channels to cover a wide range of topics. During the Spain World Cup in 1982, we learned about an Argentine wizard, Diego Maradona, who, however, couldn’t eventually become a Harry Potter in Spain. Four years later, in the 1986 Mexico World Cup, he finally demonstrated the best of Hogwarts’ wizardry. One can certainly criticise him for his “Hand of God goal” (well, there was no VAR at that time) but who can forget his “Goal of the Century” against England in the quarter finals, dribbling past five English players and finally the goalkeeper? And Maradona had become football’s demi-god to millions worldwide. He deserved to be, for sure. And for me as well. Thus, there is nothing special about my lifelong support for the Argentine football team. A 16-year-old boy watching football in 1986 was destined to love Diego Maradona and the team he played for. If somebody does anything else, that’s extraordinary. Thirty-six years on, exactly in a similar manner and from quite a similar perspective, today’s 16-year-olds are destined to adore Messi, another Argentine magician, and the team he played for in the World Cup. But, still, I feel that we are the luckier generation. We could get glimpses of both Maradona and Messi – two GOATs. When Leo Messi takes on France in his last-ever World Cup match in Sunday’s final, the old question will pop up: how would we compare Maradona and Messi, if at all? Such a comparison has been in the air for a long time. Football experts, commentators, and eminent reporters can try to judge the difference in their skill, touch, leadership, magic, and achievements, of course. But there may be other differences between Maradona and Messi – in their lifestyles, social perspectives, and political beliefs. And that’s really important.
British sports journalist Jonathan Wilson’s 2016 book Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina is a definitive history of Argentinian football, responsible for some of the greatest footballers on the planet, such as Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Román Riquelme, Sergio Agüero, and Lionel Messi. Wilson quoted the novelist Eduardo Sacheri in the context of Messi versus Maradona comparisons: “It isn’t Messi’s fault,” Sacheri had said, “that we Argentineans are incapable of ending our mourning for Diego.”
Earlier, in his 2011 paper in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, Bartlomiej Brach of the University of Warsaw carried out a comparative study of Maradona and Messi to assess whether the latter will be judged one of the world’s greatest football players, whose reputation will outstrip those of both Maradona and Pelé. The author discussed the issue in the local context, where the purely Argentinean cultural concepts of the pibe and the potrero are applied. In the 1920s, the journalist Borocoto described the “pibe” as something of a “liminal figure, the urchin who will make his way through life with a combination of charm and cunning.” And “potrero” is a mythical place. In his book, Wilson also noted that, unlike Maradona, Messi lacks the attributes of a “pibe”. The European perspective is also discussed in Brach’s paper. Messi in 2022, however, is not the same as Messi in 2011. This Messi, widely perceived to be Messi 2.0, knew very well that this was his last chance to win a World Cup, thus possibly equalling Maradona in Argentina’s worshipful eyes. And he sparkled at his best. During the Qatar World Cup, Messi, 35, continued displaying his magical skill – his assists in the quarter finals and in the semi-final were mesmerizing. “Messi invented an angle which didn’t even exist,” a commentator exclaimed at the pass of his assist against Holland in the quarter final. That is absolutely Messi at his best. But, importantly, Messi 2.0 is also different in his attitude. Messi criticized the referee; he even confronted the Dutch coach. This Messi, astonishingly, can ignite football pop culture by saying, “What are you looking at, fool? Go away,” with coffee mugs and Tshirts already printed with the original quote in Spanish, “Qué mirás, bobo?… Andá para allá”.
Two years ago, Maradona’s sudden demise was truly a shock to the world – like the demise of Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, and Michael Jackson. But Maradona was a bad boy in many senses. From cocaine to mafia connections, doping can be traced throughout his life. However, Maradona was never shy to express his political beliefs, supporting Latin American socialism, and demonizing the Catholic Church. In a recent article, Sid Lowe, the Spanish football correspondent for The Guardian, wrote about Messi’s performance in Qatar: “He has played every minute. He has been Maradonian. He has been Maradonaing, in fact. And that’s not just about excellence; there’s the energy, the expression of commitment, identification.” The word “Maradona” has thus become a verb in Sid Lowe’s depiction. And the fact that Messi has become a “Maradonian” has just made the greatest football wizard of this generation even greater, indeed.
But could Messi fully be “Maradonaed” in Qatar? Well, Maradona, the magician, is much more than his football genius. In his 2011 paper, Bartlomiej Brach finally argued that “Lionel Messi will not be able to equal or exceed the mythical status of Diego Maradona.” He, in fact, suggested that the status of a player greatly depends on the cultural context and that performance on the field is of lesser importance. Many years ago, Argentine rock star singer Juanse said: “Maradona is only comparable to General San Martin with a temperature of 40 degrees crossing the Andean mountains for the liberation of Chile.” In Argentina, Maradona truly continues to be a hero as important as the legendary liberator from colonial rule. In fact, in his 2001 article “The Spectacle of a Heroic Life: The Case of Diego Maradona,” Argentine sociologist, essayist, and educator Eduardo P. Archetti argued that most Argentines would “include Maradona in a kind of heroic triangle in which Maradona is not only similar to San Martin but also very similar to another Argentinian hero and mythical figure, the tango singer Carlos Gardel, who died young and tragically in 1933.” This is Maradona. You may not agree with every bit of Diego Maradona’s activities and lifestyle, certainly. But you can sense the man’s passion as if he were an uncut diamond. You not only adore him; you are bound to love him as well. Messi, undoubtedly, is Planet Football’s best citizen of this generation – irrespective of Sunday’s outcome. But this is where DM10 will possibly remain closer to your heart than LM10. Forever.