This coming World Cup in Russia, there is probably no other team heading into the tournament with more pressure than Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Also known as La Albiceleste, the squad represents a country with a rich and proud footballing history, a two-time World Cup champion with a consistent track record of producing many of the best footballing talents in the planet, the greatest of which is Diego Armando Maradona.
The diminutive midfielder has been blessed on the pitch, being able to do and achieve so much for the national team especially in the 1986 World Cup that he has cast a very big shadow to talented players that followed him.
WORLD CUP REWIND: #OnThisDay in 1986 Diego Maradona’s first goal of the tournament earns Argentina a draw versus Italy. In mid-air he guides it perfectly into the corner. Tidy. pic.twitter.com/ACeI1nmUca
— Proper Football (@sid_lambert) June 5, 2018
And now the country has produced another once in a generation genius of a talent in the persona of Lionel Messi, the same shadow is being cast upon him along with the immense pressure of being the next saviour who will lead the nation to another World Cup glory.
He came close to achieving such heights in 2014 reaching the finals, along with 2015 and 2016 in the continental stage, but thrice he came short – a damning run of results.
So let’s take a peek into Argentina’s two greatest heroes to date and their tales, one already on the pedestal of greatness while the other heading into the final phase of a long and arduous odyssey with the aim to deliver his country back to footballing glory.
Espectacular tapa de El Gráfico: Messi y Maradona. Genial. pic.twitter.com/EdY450tI
— Humberto Perozo S. (@kikoperozo) November 2, 2012
Blessed: The Ghost of EL DIEGO
Hailing from one of Argentina’s potreros, Diego Maradona burst into international stardom in the 80s.
El Diego as he is more known is regarded as more than just Argentina’s GOAT when it comes to football, but he’s been elevated to the status of a revered personality – a deity.
An extraordinary player of the game gifted with an amazing array of skills and cunning in terms of creating chances and scoring goals, Maradona’s divine right was stamped during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico when he was considered as the mastermind of Argentina’s run to their second World Cup trophy.
His legend was solidified during Argentina’s win against England in the quarter-finals stage where he scored two of the most important goals in the history of football which, to this day, are remembered in stark contrasts.
The first goal was an act of deceit as he put the ball into the back of the net using his fist without any of the officials taking notice of the infraction that eventually became known as the Hand of God goal, while the second was a product of pure genius off a mazy run that beat almost all of the English backline that became known as the Goal of the Century.
Just after his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal, Maradona then went on to score the greatest world cup goal ever. Picking the ball up his own half, dribbling past no less than five English players and then slotting it past the goalkeeper perfectly. pic.twitter.com/rB6qG4liz5
— ʀαjdєєp (@RajSpeaKING) June 1, 2018
In the semi-final match against Belgium, Maradona once again was in scintillating form scoring twice once again to lead his team to the final against West Germany.
Despite being tightly defended by the West Germans for most of the match, Maradona was able to carve out an assist to Jorge Burruchaga to score the winning goal in a tightly contested final that ended three goals to two.
In the process of his heroic deeds, he became an icon and despite some glaring flaws in his character that led to his eventual downfall as a player, he is still venerated by many, not just in Argentina but also by fans and even his peers in the footballing world, especially the generation of players from his country that followed his.
But all of that happened several generations ago, and in terms of footballing years, in an age now distant.
There had been a few promising and talented players that followed soon, but they were not able to reach the same mythos and legend that El Diego was able to achieve. They ended up as pretenders, but not quite of the same article come the end of their careers.
Damned: EL MESSIas
Fast forward to today’s generation, we see another Argentinian who is of a similar stature with Maradona, probably with even better abilities pound-for-pound but had a different journey to his stardom that somehow made him a bit of an alien and distant to the Albiceleste’s home fans. Despite that, he is still being hailed as the country’s next footballing saviour. He came close in 2014, but failed. This guy goes by the name of none other than Lionel Messi.
Born and hailed in Rosario Argentina in 1987, less than a year after Maradona and Company lifted Argentina’s second and final World Cup in history, Messi showed immense talent at an early age.
He was initially acquired by Rosario-based Newell’s Old Boys from 1994 but due to a growth hormone condition that required serious funding, he eventually went to Spain to play for FC Barcelona who agreed to pay for his medical expenses.
From then on, he became affiliated with the Catalan giants for the rest of his professional career where La Pulga Atomica thrived as a forward, eventually becoming the club’s all-time top-scorer and winning many accolades, trophies and unprecedented triumphs and records for his club along the way.
But despite his greatness at club-level, Diego Maradona’s shadow still looms above him with regards to his exploits for Argentina in the senior competitions.
After a fruitful spell for the national team in the non-senior competitions capped with triumphs in the FIFA U-20 World Cup and 2008 Olympics, Messi failed to deliver the Albiceleste to the promised land, may it be in the World Cup or the Copa America tournaments.
Messi was able to bring them agonisingly close last 2014 in Brazil only to fall short at the last hurdle against the same opponents Maradona faced 28 years ago, the best collective unit in the tournament, Germany.
In the continental stage, the Copa America, Messi was also able to lead Argentina to the final twice in 2015 and 2016 that could have been the lesser requirement to cement his status nearer to the level of El Diego, but Chile proved to be their nemesis on both occasions.
The unfortunate streak of being bridesmaids thrice has taken a toll on the talented talisman that he initially declared his retirement from the national team in June 27, 2016.
But that proved to be just a spur of the moment, as on August 12 of that same year, Messi reversed his decision and planned to soldier on with La Albiceleste.
Just as when Messi is back with the national team, suddenly Argentina’s road to the 2018 World Cup qualification was almost put in jeopardy when the team was in a precarious situation of not making it to the main event heading into the final qualification match.
But Lionel Messi carried his team against all odds in the unfriendly altitude of Quito in Ecuador. Initially a goal down, El Messias scored a hat-trick to come up with a miracle and successfully book his team to Russia.
Now in his fourth (and possibly final) World Cup stint as a player, this will be his make or break.
He is Argentina’s great Atlas at the moment, and the World Cup 2018 in Russia is the heaviest that his burden is going to be before he probably sets himself free from that load, however it ends.
A photoshoot of Messi with some goats was pretty much inevitable 🐐🐐
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 4, 2018
Will he conclude his World Cup career as a tragic hero like his predecessors who didn’t quite reach the levels of Diego, or will he, along with the other heroes that he is gonna lead in this international football odyssey be able unlock that glorious mystery and attain immortality?
Messi vs Ronaldo. Ronaldo vs Messi.
This summer, the rivalry becomes epic, and the world becomes the FIFA World Cup. 🐐🏆 pic.twitter.com/U3J2Tu6Qth
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 20, 2018
The Messiah’s final Via Dolorosa towards ‘D10S’ status is about to begin. And for sure, many are going to witness it unfold.
Related article: World Cup Team Preview: Argentina