Amazing Messi's career trajectory potentially higher than Maradona's
Messi has more titles at age 23 than the legendary Maradona had
Messi's performances for Argentina have been criticized by the Argentine public
Argentina's formation needs to be adjusted to take advantage of Messi's skills
Over the past few weeks Barcelona's Lionel Messi has stunned the soccer world with some of the most superlative performances people have ever seen -- relentlessly bettering himself and his team and enhancing the game itself.
With the World Cup fast approaching, the question around the globe is whether Messi will be as masterful with Argentina as he's been with Barcelona. Inevitably, comparisons with his countryman and international manager Diego Maradona have hogged the debate.
Here's the rub: Maybe the question shouldn't be, Is Messi as good as Maradona, but rather, Was Maradona as good as Messi?
Messi will turn 23 in June, and he has already accomplished more than Maradona had at his age. As Barcelona's Sport newspaper pointed out, comparing the two players, Messi has won 12 titles, 10 with Barcelona and two with Argentina. Maradona, at the same stage in his career, had only two: one with Boca Juniors and one with Argentina.
And although Maradona made his debut in the first division of professional club football (10 days before his 16th birthday) and in Argentina's national side at a slightly younger age than Messi (who was 16 years old, 145 days when debuting for Barça), Messi was younger than Maradona in his first World Cup appearance.
Messi played a deciding role in the youth World Cup of Holland 2005 (a year before his first World Cup, just as Maradona excelled in the 1979 Youth World Cup in Japan before his 1982 World Cup). Messi was also the shining star of the gold medal Olympic squad in Beijing, making a very public and strong personal stance to play against the wishes of employer club Barcelona. And he was at times mesmerizing in the 2007 Copa America, reaching the finals in superb synchronicity with Juan Roman Riquelme, just before Argentina started to become enigmatically underachieving.
Yet until last week Messi had been the target of criticism in his native country. Fans and the press blamed Messi for Argentina's struggle to qualify for the World Cup finals. The facts that he left the country at a young age, never playing professional club football in Argentina and lacks the demeanor of Maradona (outgoing, feisty, a natural leader) also exposed Messi to harshness.
Maradona as manager did not appease the situation but rather fed it. His comments on Messi -- "He is not playing as well as I would like," for example -- contrast starkly with remarks by Barça's Pep Guardiola after below-par Messi performances. "He can have as many bad games as he wants," Guardiola has said. "He will still be Messi."
Then, after Messi scored a Champions League record-tying four goals against Arsenal on April 5, Argentina changed its tune. Messi's goals were on a loop in practically every screen in Buenos Aires. Every football chat show on every media -- and that's a lot of shows -- discussed in detail the genius of a man the nation now proudly claimed as one of its own.