Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (R) wal

Brian Phillips has written a thoughtful (surprise!) post over at Grantland on the curious outer panels of Maradona’s career triptych. What if we only knew the start and ends of his career?

All you have is panels one and three. You have to imagine the center. What could you make of a mechanism that took the young Maradona in at one end and rolled the old Maradona out at the other? What would its characteristics be? And does that tell you anything about the nature of global soccer?

I genuinely don’t know, but the question tugs a little at the back of my mind every time he’s in the news for doing something insane. He was that kid 36 years ago. Now he’s an aging global icon who is unable to do either of the two things aging global icons want to do — relive or escape his own past. He seems bewildered these days, more than anything; for all his venality and bogus machismo, he seems hurt. As if he headed up the ball one day and still can’t understand why it doesn’t come back down.

As for the question about the nature of global soccer, it’s hard not to think of Maradona’s spiritual successor in Lionel Messi. Lionel’s Messiah to Diego’s Madonna, if you will.

Messi, at least in his career, is currently in the middle panel. And at the similar stage in their careers he is everything Maradona is not. Messi flourished at Barcelona, for one. He also pulled off the unlikely trick of managing to be literally the Best Player Who Ever Lived and yet still only one component of a team with Xavi and Iniesta.

Compare this to Maradona, who left Barca in part over a fallout with club president Josep Núñez only to go to Napoli to perform as a one-man wrecking ball, winning the club their only two Scudettos to date in 1987 and 1990. When we think of the possible impact of a single player on the fortunes of a team, we think of Maradona. He singlehandedly won Argentina a World Cup, and Messi has received inane criticism for not managing to do the same under a team managed by Diego Maradona.

Moreover, whereas Maradona courted controversy at every turn in his career, Messi’s post-match quotes disappear like ether into the air at Nou Camp. While Xavi speaks like a poet—like Brian Eno he’s in perpetual search for space—Messi has a hint of an NHLer in him standing in front of a microphone (“What’s truly important is that we stay on this course. We have to keep on winning”, wrote no-one on an inspirational coffee mug).

Maradona was also tabloid darling, forever dodging accusations of drug abuse. Meanwhile Messi’s off the field appearances seem limited to X-Boxes and Playstations around the world, at least until he pops up in a Japanese face wash commercial and still manages to charm.

So to play Phillips’ trick, what will the third panel of Messi’s triptych look like? The Anodyne Footballing Genius Club currently has one member—Pele—and his post-playing career is a running joke even in American circles: leave no self-aggrandizing commercial opportunity un-exploited.

And while Messi is poised to join Pele’s team, he’s still different. Pele may have had a relatively quiet personal life, but he was nowhere near as self-effacing as Messi. “I have changed nothing,” Messi once said in reference to himself. “If I wasn’t paid to be a professional footballer I would willingly play for nothing,” he also said, and what’s incredible is that he probably meant it. While his personal worth is still an affront to all things good and holy, he’s also a UNICEF ambassador. I see the good in him.

Which means he could go the Pele route, but maybe not look as ridiculous endorsing Saudi Arabia to win the 2030 World Cup. Or Messi could simply spend the rest of his life as a kind of footballing Bill Gates without the corporate baggage.

But as silly as it might seem his post-football life matters, at least in changing the way we think about the mechanics of footballing genius. Because, in the end, how sad would it be for Messi to not only eclipse Maradona’s genius as a player, but also to negate Maradona’s post-football pain—pain we kept telling ourselves was largely the result of the burden of that genius—by living an honourable, sober life?

Comments (14)

  1. Part of what makes Messi so special is his humble dedication to his craft. He’s a genuinely nice guy. He’s not the prima donna C Ronaldo is. He’s not in the tabloids for bad mouthing this player or sleeping with that players wife.

    He’s the guy most parents wish their daughter would bring home to dinner, hoping dad will approve of his career choice. The main difference being, of course, that any father who didn’t approve of his career would be out of his damn mind.

    • “He’s not in the tabloids for bad mouthing this player or sleeping with that players wife.”

      No, but accosting rival players in parking garages and berate them in front of their wife and kids, like a certain Argentinian apparently did, probably qualifies a person as a douche.

      Also, wanna back up your claims about Ronaldo being a “Prima Donna”? Mind telling me what about the guy makes him come off as anything other than a model professional footballer?

      • I was hoping against hope that this thread could avoid the inane Messi v. Ronaldo debate – especially as to who is a better person rather than just a better player.

        • Not debating anything because there isn’t a debate to be had – it’s pretty clear who the better player is when one has 4 Ballon d’Ors and the other has 1.

          Just sick of seeing people dragged thru mud for no good reason.

          • Yea, the Ballon D’or is definitely the way to measure a players skill and worth, cuz it’s not a biased popularity contest at all.

    • “he’s genuinely a nice guy”.

      You have no proof that that is true. I’m not saying he’s a jerk, I’m just saying we don’t know.
      Did any of us know about all of Tiger’s whores? About Lance’s mind bogglingly professional doping apparatus? Oscar’s…god knows what’s going on with him and his brother right now.

      If you don’t lionize athletes’ personalities, you’ll never be disappointed.

  2. We need to stop trying to insert Messi into a framework that existed 20 years ago. This is not 1990 anymore, and sadly the imperial position of European soccer has been confirmed. Maradona and Pele flourished in an era when such things weren’t settled. Maradona resisted through his outlandish behavior, and for this Argentines idolize him. The ‘inane’ critique of Messi stems from this fidelity to Barcelona, to a system, and the seeming lack of Maradona’s passion for international play. I think this new context needs to be defined, rather than the perpetual articles about who Messi does/will emulate/surpass at various stages in his career.

    • This is an interesting comment, can you expand on it?
      1. What do you mean by “the imperial position of European soccer? And are you referring to just club football or international also?
      2. More interestingly – Could you say more of what you mean by “The ‘inane’ critique of Messi stems from this fidelity to Barcelona, to a system, and the seeming lack of Maradona’s passion for international play.”
      I thought Whittal’s point on that particular matter was pretty good: in that criticising Messi for not being able to do for Argentina what he has done for Barcelona is pretty ridiculous, because they are totally different conditions. Not to mention that without Mardonna coaching Messi might yet win his World Cup. But regardless, I’m not saying your wrong, I’m just curious about the point your making on that one.

  3. Mind telling me what’s so inane about criticizing Messi’s World Cup performance? Or his Copa America performance, which was a) post-Maradona era, and b) on home soil? He gets a lot of tire pumping when it appears he is simply a very talented player who is the beneficiary of some very talented assistance on his club side, unable to accomplish the individualistic marvels that carry a team in the mold that Diego Maradona did.

  4. Maradonna good
    Pele better
    George Best

  5. The Story So Far- Feb. 21 Single players a team do not make. Football’s a funny game (as you know). One of the funnier aspects, not in the ha-ha sense of course, is the focus on the single game impact of one or two players.
    When we think of the possible impact of a single player on the fortunes of a team, we think Maradonna. He single-handedly won Argentina a World Cup….
    Counter-Attack, indeed.

  6. Seconded – Mr. Posters

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