JOHANNESBURG // The comparisons will probably never cease. Lionel Messi, the diminutive Argentine magician, will take to the pitch this afternoon at Ellis Park knowing he stands on the cusp of greatness. And yet, irrelevant of how he performs against Nigeria, he cannot rival Diego Maradona, his compatriot and national coach, until he helps his country to win the World Cup.
Messi has in the past 18 months won every honour available to him both personally and with his team, Barcelona. The only winner's medal he lacks is the one he wants the most, yet his performances for his national team have paled in comparison to his exploits in Europe, where he scored 43 goals in 49 games in all competitions last season. It is the task of Maradona, the once mercurial playmaker who lifted football's most sought-after trophy in 1986, to ensure Messi produces on the pitch for Argentina this month. If he achieves that, the final is a very realistic goal. If he fails, both coach and player can expect a bitter backlash.
Messi is already somewhat of a controversial figure in Argentina, loved and loathed in equal measure for his seeming lack of patriotism and the fact he emigrated to Spain while still in his early teens. Maradona meanwhile, having enjoyed deity-like status at home for the past two decades, will see his image irreconcilably tarnished if Argentina fail to meet the country's high expectations. Maradona has faced criticism in the past for his inability to have Messi shine in the blue and white, with some cynics claiming the 50-year-old is deliberately playing the former Newell's Old Boys forward out of position, so he himself remains the country's greatest player.
Such arguments were dismissed yesterday, however, as Maradona claimed if his young protege has a successful World Cup, he will be remembered as the greatest player of all time. "I wish with all my heart for Leo to have a superb tournament and be the best of all time definitively," said the coach from his team's training base in Pretoria. "I'd love Leo to have the same impact [in this World Cup] that I had in 1986. But behind Leo there is a team that supports him, He should be the cherry on the cake."
Messi's chances of emulating his manager will hinge on whether he is allowed to play to his strengths, running with the ball at pace and quickly changing direction. In 1986, in a bid to halt an inspired Maradona, some teams reverted to fouling the playmaker. Yesterday, the coach, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, called for referees to eliminate such tactics and know the meaning of fair play. "Those who don't want to play football should sit in the stands," Maradona said. "Those who do want to play and who the people want to see play should be able to do so without problems. Fifa has to keep fair play very much in mind. And the referees have to know the meaning of those words."
Obafemi Martins, Nigeria's explosive striker, said yesterday that his team will not fall into the trap of concentrating all their efforts on stopping Messi. "People talk a lot about Messi, forgetting that there are other very good players in the Argentinian team, such as Carlos Tevez and Diego Milito. It's a team game and we also have our own stars for the day," Martins told reporters, @Email:email@example.com