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In theory, of course, Maradona figured to be a vital resource for Messi. Who, after all, is better positioned to give advice—superstar to superstar—on the Argentine press and on the burden and joy of being the best player alive? Who better to warn Messi how hangers-on and yes-men (like the comically sycophantic band of "Sí, Diegos" who surround Maradona) can siphon off his money and speed the erosion of his gift? But when Messi is asked whether Maradona has ever taken him aside to offer a word on handling fame or fortune or any of the other pitfalls of his position, he doesn't bristle. This question he keeps in play.
"In truth," Messi says, "no."
Even when the topic shifts, Messi gives little away. He says he "dreams of winning all the titles," admits that he cried upon leaving home at 13 to play in Barcelona and declares, "I never get nervous before I play," but all of it is delivered in a curt monotone, with nothing resembling Pelé's playfulness or Cruyff's imagination. This is nothing new; reporters have been banging their heads against Messi's reticence for years. He is not so much hostile to the press as uninterested in the subject of himself; he barely lit up earlier today for the Adidas film crew, in town for an in-house interview, and the company is paying him $4 million a year.
Shyness can be underrated, however, especially at a time when every emerging jock is dancing and tweeting in a desperate grab to "become a personality" and "expand his brand." The fact is, with a talent as otherworldly as Messi's, charm would be a distraction. Miles Davis played a diabolic trumpet with his back to the audience, and that was more than enough; any hint of charisma would have blown the roof off the place. Maradona's career, meanwhile, played out like a war between a glorious body and a corrupted mind; when, in 1994, his days as an international player ended in disgrace after he failed a World Cup drug test, the personality seemed to have consumed the player whole.
Diamond earrings flashing, waistline ballooning, marriage falling apart, Maradona soon became a cartoon figure. He had an image of Fidel Castro tattooed on his left thigh and one of Che Guevara on his right arm, got his stomach stapled, wore a swastika-emblazoned T-shirt that condemned George W. Bush. His life became Argentina's favorite telenovela; his quotes entered the lexicon. "Keep sucking!" is a popular ringtone; it's no shock to hear Maradona barking, "¡Sigan chupando!" in a Buenos Aires bar and see men reach for their phones.
So it's refreshing to find Messi's off-field act to be conspicuously anti-Diego: mall haircut, hangdog slouch, no jewelry or body art. Throw in the nickname La Pulga—the Flea—and Messi comes off like the guy who rotates your tires. "Maradona swaggers," says Carles Rexach, a former Barcelona player and coach. "Messi doesn't want to be noticed."
Yet on the field no one else resembles Maradona more. It's not just that at 5'7", Messi is the same diminutive whirlwind, "able to dribble past people like they are not there," as Barça striker Thierry Henry puts it. There's also the uncanny coincidence that against the Spanish club Getafe in 2007, Messi unleashed a wonder score identical to Maradona's so-called Goal of the Century against England in that '86 World Cup: a 60-meter sprint past the same number of opponents (six), involving the same number of touches (13) and lasting the same number of seconds (13). Then, seven weeks later, Messi replicated Maradona's notorious Hand of God goal by punching in a score against Espanyol. "I make an effort not to compare them," says Jorge Valdano, director general of Barça's archrival, Real Madrid, "but the kid doesn't help at all."
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.