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?