Messi and Maradona must unite
By Kevin Palmer
As Lionel Messi prepares for his date with destiny at the World Cup finals, the greatest footballer on the planet could be forgiven for wondering whether the biggest rival standing in his way this summer is, in fact, on his own side.
Messi is heading to South Africa with the hopes and expectations of his nation nestled heavily on his shoulders and, if Messi has any concerns about handling such intolerable pressure, he won’t have to look far for inspiration.
Argentina boss Diego Maradona will be fully aware of the pressures the Barcelona superstar will be dealing with in the next month, with his own heroics at the 1986 World Cup finals proof that only the true greats of the game stand up to be counted in this competition.
However, the critics fear that Messi’s dream of proving his worth as the game’s modern-day footballing giant are liable to be snatched out of his hands by the very man charged with inspiring him.
Maradona has established a reputation for being the most unpredictable coach in football after a qualifying campaign that so nearly cost Argentina their place in the finals, and few believe his eccentricities will be locked in a secure box at this World Cup.
Maradona’s devotion to Argentina has never been in doubt, but his single-minded determination to do things his way has backfired time and again during a turbulent reign as national team boss and now the world awaits his next moves with bated breath.
Having the brilliant Messi in his ranks means Argentina are capable of winning the World Cup in spite of their coach, and yet Maradona’s key star insists the media onslaught against his coach is unjustified.
Offering a stout defence of his idol ahead of Argentina’s tricky opening World Cup game against Nigeria next Saturday, Messi seems determined to paper over the cracks Maradona’s incompetence have created.
“Some sections of the media haven’t spared Diego and the criticism has gone well beyond acceptable limits,” he says, doing his best to back up a coach who has used a total of 107 different players during his two years as an international coach.
“Diego will accept that he has to take the blame if things go wrong because he is the man in charge and we were not especially convincing during the World Cup qualifiers, but I don’t think he should singled out for criticism.
As players, we have to take our share of responsibility for the inconsistent results on the way to South Africa. We are all in this together and I have to say I don’t appreciate the tough treatment of Diego.
“Thanks to his exceptional talent and achievements in the game, Diego is nothing less than an Argentine icon, the Player of the Century, and it is wrong to criticise someone of such incredible standing until this World Cup is finished.
“Diego has led us to the World Cup finals so no more could have been asked of him so far. He wants what is best for our football and is single-minded about us winning another world title. Ideally, everyone in Argentina gets behind us now, but when Diego is attacked, we rally around him. It gives us extra motivation.”
Having spent the bulk of his celebrated life being treated with the reverence normally reserved for religious deity, Maradona has struggled to come to terms with his new status as the potential destroyer of Argentina’s latest World Cup dreams.
His vitriolic rant directed at his critics in the aftermath of his side’s qualification for South Africa 2010 was proof that this previously critic-proof legend had been hurt by the abuse flowing his way, but he shows no sign of relenting in his desire to throw up the unexpected.
The coach’s decision to omit Inter Milan duo Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso from his squad and a refusal to patch up his feud with Juan Riquelme have been compounded by a revolutionary plan to abandon the use of full backs in this tournament. His ‘four centre backs formation’ will certainly be worth watching this summer.
After failing to develop a team shape, the danger must be that Argentina’s team will be better on paper than on the field, with his chief failing so far being his inability to bring the best out of Messi as the little master has looked a shadow of the player on view at Barcelona when he pulled on the No.10 jersey once worn with such distinction by Maradona himself.
Despite all these doubts, the biggest name taking part in this World Cup insists Maradona’s personality has been crucial in welding together a team spirit that he believes will take the side all the way to glory in South Africa.
“The first thing to say about Diego is that he is really close to the players,” Messi says. “He is like a big brother looking to guide and protect you. The relationship is a good and healthy one.
Everyone respects him 150% because when Maradona speaks, you have to listen. We play our hearts out for our country, our people and for Diego and this is a pretty good recipe. The spirit in the camp is terrific and anyone who says other things are not in the real world.
“To appreciate this, you just have to look at Carlos Tevez. He’s not always in the starting line-up, but he never lets it get him down. Our squad is united and Diego is part of the reason for that.”
Maradona’s infamous short fuse is liable to blow at any moment during this World Cup, but Messi is convinced Argentina have the tools at their disposal to enhance his legacy as Argentina’s enduring sporting God.
“We didn’t produce our best as often as we should have in the qualifiers and we found it hard at times to play with the right rhythm, but this is the World Cup and everyone starts with a fresh sheet of paper,” he says.
“Our nation lives for this tournament and that’s why I’m sure we will do well. The more intense the competition, the better we like it and we certainly have the players you need to do well in this World Cup. I am biased, but the squad we are taking to South Africa is the strongest maybe with the exception of Spain and our biggest strength must be with our attacking players.
“With Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito, Sergio Aguero, myself and many others, we need not worry about goals and every national team coach around who wouldn’t want that sort of selection problem. The trouble is talk means nothing and we have produce it when it matters most.”
The uncontrollable ego desperate to escape from Maradona’s stocky frame would doubtless explode at the thought of Messi joining him as an Argentinean World Cup legend, yet the coach who will hog the headlines whatever happens to his team in South Africa needs his cloned successor to live up to his billing in the next few weeks.
They may be two sporting icons who have got used to winning matches with their own brilliance, but both Messi and Maradona are leaning on each other to reach the promised land this summer. This story will make fascinating viewing.