RIO DE JANEIRO — The comparisons with flamboyant and outspoken legend Diego Maradona have surely become tiresome to World Cup star Lionel Messi of Argentina, but they will be intensified to a whole new decibel over the next 48 hours.
Nearly three decades after Maradona carried Argentina on his back to the 1986 World Cup title, his quieter more humble heir, Messi, has a chance to duplicate Diego’s heroics, wearing the captain’s arm band against the same exact opponent: Germany.
If Messi can work his magic Sunday, or even play a peripheral role while drawing defenders to open up space for his teammates, he will once and for all put an end to the debate of whether he measures up to Maradona as one of the best players of all time. He certainly would equal El Diego as the best players ever to wear the sky blue and white No. 10.
The Barcelona playmaker is a four-time World Player of the Year. He has won six Spanish La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, and is the all-time Barcelona leading scorer with 354 goals in 425 matches.
He is the highest-paid player in the world at $27 million per year; and if that weren’t enough, he earns a staggering $40 million in endorsements. He also happens to stand two inches taller than the 5-5 Maradona, whose gigantic personality made him seem a more imposing figure on and off the field.
But Maradona has one thing Messi doesn’t: a World Cup championship on his resume.
Messi, 27, can change that Sunday, and one-up Maradona by beating the Germans at Maracana Stadium, the Brazilian soccer cathedral.
“I think Lionel Messi’s legacy is already secure,” ESPN analyst Ian Darke said on a teleconference Thursday. “He’s been World Player of the Year four times; he’s broken all kinds of records. We know he’s a great player. I think this would just be the final gloss of paint, if you like, on a wonderful reputation. But I suppose in Argentina, Messi maybe needs this to just move himself alongside Diego Maradona, who almost won it single-handedly in 1986.”
Fellow ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas said the comparisons will never stop because both players are Argentine, left-footed and diminutive, but if Messi wins a trophy Sunday, he “has this final box checked off” and then the only question is which icon is more beloved by the Argentine people.
Maradona probably would always win that contest because he was raised in a shantytown and spent the first six years of his career in Argentina before going to Europe whereas Messi moved to Spain as a young boy and has spent his entire professional career there, making him — in the minds of some Argentines — more Spanish than Argentine.
Maradona also was a renegade, a controversial headline waiting to happen, and Argentine fans always were entertained by their flawed hero. Messi is a cautious corporate spokesman.
“There’s no way (Messi) can ever be Diego Maradona from a personal perspective given what Maradona has meant, the man of the people and all that kind of stuff,” Lalas said. “So from that compare and contrast, it’s never going to happen. But from being the best player ever to play the game, I think if Messi is going to help lead this team to the World Cup and win it, and not just win it but win it in Maracana in Brazil, he would have to be considered, as far as I’m concerned, the best player ever to play the game.”
Messi has waited three World Cups to finally make his mark on the sport’s biggest stage. Eight years ago at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he was barely 19 and coming off an injury. Argentina lost to Germany in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Four years ago in South Africa, Messi did not stand out, and the Germans knocked the Maradona-coached Argentines out again with a 4-0 shocker in the quarterfinal in Cape Town.
Messi scored just one goal in eight World Cup matches in 2006 and ’10, and the question was whether he could achieve as much for his country as he did for his club team. He has taken a giant step toward proving he can here over the past few weeks. He had a goal and assist against Bosnia, a goal against Iran and two goals against Nigeria.
But he has been relatively quiet in the knockout stage, going scoreless with no assists against Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Before the game against the Dutch, Oranje coach Louis van Gaal said of Messi: “On the most important stage, he hasn’t always pulled it off. He’s always found it difficult to do that at international level and he wants to change that at this tournament. We want to stop him, so that’s going to be quite a challenge.”
The Dutch stifled Messi’s creativity by suffocating him with two and sometimes three defenders at almost all times. But Messi still made a difference. His very presence roaming around the middle of the field kept the Dutch on alert, and might have prevented them from attacking as much as they would against another team for fear of leaving Messi unguarded.
German coach Joachim Loew and his team now face the same challenge. They certainly have the personnel to do the same as the Dutch. They shut down Cristiano Ronaldo in a 4-0 first-round victory. The Germans also have been scoring more than the Argentines here. They thrashed Brazil 7-1, whereas Argentina has won all its games by one goal — 2-1, 1-0, 3-2, 1-0 and 1-0.
On Sunday, Messi has a chance, in front of a worldwide TV audience and 78,000 fans at Maracana, to deliver that brilliance everyone is waiting to see.
Before Messi played an exhibition in Miami a few years ago, TV analyst Ray Hudson, the former Miami Fusion coach — who is known for hyperbole — said: “The people of Miami should crawl on broken glass just to inhale the exhaust fumes from the bus Messi is traveling on. He is that good. He is one of the gods of the game, right up there with Pele and Diego Maradona. There is something about this player that transcends the game in that magical way.
“He’s the equivalent of the Miami Heat’s great three all rolled into one. He has the borderline genius of LeBron (James), the magical exuberance of Dwyane Wade, and the coolness and effectiveness of (Chris) Bosh. This guy is spellbinding and so astonishingly special. He is Shakespeare’s greatest sonnet in motion.”
That is all well and good, but Messi craves what the Heat stars have earned. He wants his sport’s most coveted trophy. He wants to check off that final box.