Lionel Messi (cont.)
Messi has claimed to have read only one book, Maradona's autobiography, Yo soy el Diego de la gente (I Am the People's Diego), but said he didn't finish it. Clearly, he's stuck in Maradona's glory years. In 2009 he won his second Champions League, second La Liga and first Copa del Rey titles with Barça and became Argentina's first FIFA World Player of the Year. This season he was unstoppable, with 53 goals in 47 matches as Barça won La Liga again. During one 11-game stretch he scored 17 times, including back-to-back La Liga hat tricks and the absurdly easy four goals against Arsenal. The Madrid newspaper El País dubbed him Infinity. Maradona declared that Messi was playing "kick-about with Jesus," but some soccer minds dared rate him even higher. "Tonight I saw Diego Maradona -- but at more revs per minute," said Zaragoza coach José Aurelio Gay in March after a Messi hat trick. "He's interplanetary."
Rexach believes Messi has the tools to surpass Maradona. And while Rexach acknowledges that Barça's brilliant playmakers Xavi and Andrés Iniesta help make Messi so prolific, he insists that Messi could thrive without them. "You put Messi on the worst team in the world, maybe for 10 minutes he won't touch the ball," Rexach says, "but in the 11th minute he'll dribble three times and score. Messi doesn't need anybody."
Bursting through seams no one else can see, staying on his feet despite being slashed by two or three defenders at once, Messi has indeed shifted Maradona's gambeta, his capering dribble, into a higher gear. Henry, 32, the lanky alltime leading goal scorer for France and one of the great players of his generation, can't find words to describe how Messi zips through and around opponents like a VW bug in a cluster of 18-wheelers. Finally he resorts to tapping out a staccato rhythm on a table. "He just goes -- like that," Henry says, drumming.
"People talk about basketball players, how they run full speed but they're in control of the ball with their hands, but that's way easier," Henry continues. "Running with the ball at your feet at full speed and being able to see, [being] aware of what is happening around you, [while] people are trying to make you fall? Leo is always kind of falling, but he doesn't go down. I would love to have his first step, and his double dribbles, but it's him being small [and] quick: He touches the ball every step of his run. It's impossible to do what he does. I go one-two-three, push the ball, one-two-three, push the ball. If I want to touch it every time, I [have to] slow down. But he can go full speed: Tack-tack-tack-tack, tack-tack-tack-tack." Henry throws up his hands. "I wish I was small," he says.
The easy conclusion, of course, is that the country is mad. Yes, anyplace can seem bizarre to a stranger, but let's agree that Argentina's lunacy is more obvious than, say, Denmark's. Argentina is, after all, the nation with the most psychoanalysts per capita; the country whose still-feverish devotion to a long-dead First Lady resulted in a town, Ciudad Evita, built in the shape of her head; the land where citizens fearlessly consume beef for breakfast or with afternoon coffee and erupt in street protests for any reason at all. On an April afternoon, for example, picketers halted rush-hour traffic on the highway into Buenos Aires, expressing outrage over the damage caused by a recent hailstorm. "Protesting the hail," said a lifelong resident with a shrug. "Of course."
Still, it's another thing for a country to indulge its own lunacy where its most prized possession is concerned. When in October 2008 longtime Argentina Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona named Maradona the national team coach, he made a choice that few could imagine his counterparts in England or Brazil or Germany making. It smacked of desperation and arrogance. It was confounding, exhilarating and, for a constituency accustomed to political and economic tumult, wholly appropriate.
"Argentina is used to living from crisis to crisis to crisis, and life always goes on," says Ezequiel Fernández Moores, a columnist for the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación. "Maybe it's crazy to put [Maradona] in that position, but maybe not. Sometimes it seems we love the crisis. We can't live without the crisis. Maradona is an icon of that."
Consider: One of international soccer's most storied programs, a two-time World Cup champion, was placed in the hands of a man with no international coaching experience and a paltry three wins in 23 matches during his sole stint as a club coach, with Argentina's Deportivo Mandiyú in 1994 and Racing Club in '95. Why? Speculation ranged widely: Maradona was owed the position for all he accomplished as a player; his popularity made it impossible for the AFA not to give him at least one shot; Grondona had feuded with or rejected other candidates and, when Alfio Basile resigned, Maradona was the only one Grondona could stomach.
Grondona declined to talk to SI, but in a rare newspaper interview last August he mentioned Maradona's deep knowledge of international soccer and of the Argentine talent base. "Though a standout player himself, he's never been selfish," Grondona said. "He has a natural authority over those players who saw him on the pitch or read about him. Moreover, he has a freedom of spirit that is really strange for any other coach."
Strange indeed. Maradona's curious stewardship has the nation peeking through its fingers. Grondona appointed Carlos Bilardo, who directed Maradona and Argentina to the country's last world championship, in 1986, as the team's general manager, but there were times when Bilardo and his coach barely spoke -- and the 49-year-old Maradona has since emerged firmly in charge. He won an early battle to choose his own assistants, though his former teammates Alejandro Mancuso and Héctor Enrique hardly make up for their boss's inexperience on the international stage. (Enrique's standing stems mostly from passing Maradona the ball for his historic second goal against England in '86.) The sole evidence that Maradona's soccer eye remains sharp is his stubborn championing, amid much criticism, of surprisingly steady 23-year-old goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Argentina will open the World Cup, then, as the tournament's most perplexing team. Grouped with Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, the Albiceleste should make it to the knockout stage, but Maradona has yet to show he knows how to maximize Messi's performance. The coach has alienated midfielder Juan Román Riquelme, the often self-involved Boca Juniors midfielder whose synergy with Messi led the Albiceleste to the 2007 Copa América final and the '08 Olympic gold medal. According to Hernán Castillo, the onetime soccer writer for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín, who now covers the national team for Radio La Red, the players' respect for their coach dwindled when he played them out of position and showed a lack of knowledge about their opponents. Trailing 2--0 at the half of a humiliating loss to Brazil last September in Messi's hometown of Rosario, Maradona walked through the locker room saying, "Let's go! For the country! We can do it!" After he left, one of the team's veteran midfielders, knowing somebody had to make a tactical move, told Messi to play farther back and conferred with a few other teammates. Argentina attacked more effectively in the second half but still went down 3-1, for its first home defeat in a Cup qualifier in 16 years.
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