By Rupert Fryer
Picking up the ball some 30 yards from goal, ducking inside one, outside a second, and skipping past a third before evading a final defender to dispatch it wide of the on-rushing keeper and into the far corner, it was a goal that would be replayed over and over again.
News stations across Argentina ran it in split screen, with Diego Maradona’s wonderful solo effort from 1986 taking up the other half of the picture. The nation’s finest player was once again being compared to him: 'El Diego'. Except this time the ball was considerably smaller, and the person in question was carrying a stick.
Luciana Aymar had cemented her status as the world’s finest hockey player with a stunning goal against China – one almost identical to Maradona’s second against Belgium in Mexico ’86. Aymar would go on to inspire her side to the 2010 Women's Hockey World Cup, and was named player of the tournament.
Who’s better, they asked, Aymar or Maradona? It served as a reminder that every one of the nation’s top players, regardless of the sport, lived in a post-Diego Argentina.
The previous occasion on which we were shown a Maradona goal from ’86 replayed in split-screen was his second against England and the other half of the picture showed Lionel Messi’s astonishing and eerily similar goal against Getafe in 2007. Messi has earned the comparisons ever since wandering onto the Camp Nou field as a squat, scruffy teenager around a decade ago.
|MARADONA v MESSI - THE STATISTICS|
|678 games / 344 goals||TOTAL GAMES/GOALS
||435 games / 335 goals|
|90 games / 33 goals||INTERNATIONAL GAMES/GOALS
||76 games /31 goals|
|21 games / 12 goals||WORLD CUP GAMES/GOALS||8 games / 1 goal|
|6 games / 2 goals||EUROPEAN CUP/CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GAMES/GOALS
||76 games / 58 goals|
| 1 World Cup
1 Argentine league
2 Italian leagues
1 Copa del Rey
1 Coppa Italia
1 Uefa Cup
|| 5 Spanish leagues
2 Copa del Reys
3 Champions Leagues
2 Uefa Super Cups
2 Club World Cups
As he has continued his development into the finest player on the planet, the comparisons have gone into overdrive. And everyone’s had their say.
In 2011, Maradona’s former team-mate Ossie Ardiles said Messi would one day surpass 'El Diego'. A year later Ardiles said Messi was now the “best ever”. Legendary coach Carlos Bianchi agreed, as did former Uruguay international Enzo Francescoli, and a whole host of others.
Then there were those in the Maradona camp, including Messi’s former coach Pep Guardiola, who said: “Maradona is the best I’ve ever seen.” Meanwhile, one of the oracles of football journalism, Brian Glanville, said last year that Messi still sits behind Maradona, Pele and Alfredo Di Stefano.
There is no absolute barometer for measuring talent. And with football a game of infinite variables, even the data isn’t conclusive. Messi has crushed just about every goalscoring record anyone’s even bothered to keep track of.
His current goals-to-game ratio far exceeds Maradona’s, while comparing the final list of medals at club level, it is certainly fair to argue Messi's achievements far outweigh those of 'El Diego', with five league championships and three Champions League titles to his name.
Lionel Messi will go down in history as the No. 1 player of all time, the best that there ever was.
- Ossie Ardiles
Meanwhile, Maradona earned just three league titles over the course of his career, one with Boca Juniors, and then two with Napoli, along with one Coppa Italia and a Uefa Cup victory.
Both played for Barcelona but then they were two very different Barcelonas. “Without Messi, [Barcelona] are still the best but with him they are from another galaxy,” said Germany sporting director Robin Dutt. The same cannot be said for the Barcelona side during Maradona’s short stay in Catalunya.
The ultimate test of any player is probably to what degree he improves those around them. Both Messi and Maradona undoubtedly did that, but in very different ways. “Maradona always took charge of the team,” Cesar Luis Menotti (who overlooked Maradona, then 17, for his Argentina squad that lifted the World Cup in 1978) told Telam last year. “Diego naturally took responsibility. Instead Messi plays a part, important though it is, in the operation of an orchestra as excellently tuned as Barcelona.”
What truly cemented Maradona’s place in the pantheon of the game’s all-time greats were his performances in the World Cups of 1986 and 1990. Specifically '86. Maradona had point to prove after having been left out of the squad in '78 and then being sent off against Brazil as Argentina crashed out in the group stage in '82. He arrived in Mexico four years later at the peak of his powers, and bagged five goals, including that effort against England, and was named player of the tournament as he inspired Argentina to the title. "Diego Maradona had been as great a hero as Pele in 1970," wrote Glanville.
The year 2010 was supposed to be Messi's ''86', but it didn't quite work out. Unable to drag - ironically - Maradona's desperately flawed team past a rampant Germany was held up as proof that the Barca man had yet to reach Diego’s level. But the game has changed. International football is no longer the benchmark it once was.
Diego naturally took responsibility. Instead Messi plays a part, important though it is, in the operation of an orchestra as excellently tuned as Barcelona.
- Cesar Luis Menotti
The Champions League is arguably the main competition where the world’s best congregate to test themselves against one another – a tournament in which Messi has the been the top scorer for the last four years running: an unprecedented record.
With the 25-year-old in a position to go on performing at this rate for another five to seven years, future generations are likely to rate him higher than Maradona. But should it matter? Both have captured our imaginations.
“I was nine when we won the World Cup in 1986 and I still remember exactly where I was for each of those seven matches,” says Goal.com Argentina managing editor Sebastian Garcia.
“I remember who I hugged and with whom I cried. I remember how I felt before each match and I remember how special it was to go out on the streets to celebrate that there was no other nation better than us at football, and that nobody was fit to tie Diego's shoe laces … And now, every time I see Messi play, I feel like I'm nine again.”
Perhaps this is what really matters.