World Cup fans react when Argentina scores a goal in overtime in Argentina’s match against Switzerland at Gibraltar pub in San Telmo. The crowd was noticeably tense during the actual game and into overtime as the game languished in a tie. With only two minutes left in overtime, Lionel Messi led the charge flanked by Swiss defense to pass to Angel Di Maria for a goal, causing elated fans to jump out of their seats in pubs across Buenos Aires. With the win, Argentina moves into the quarter finals.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi was passed over for 2013’s Ballon D’Or, the ‘Golden Ball’ award given to the best footballer in the world over the past 12 months, but one gets the feeling that the humble, self-effacing Messi is just as happy to pass the baton to another player for a change. This year Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo won the award but even Messi’s opponents, notably Atlético Madrid’s, Arda Turan, preemptively named Messi as the most deserving player.
Messi has received the honor four times, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, breaking a world record. He made the final shortlist in the 2007, 2008 and 2013 editions. Even in years when Argentina crashed out, such as in the Quarter Finals of the 2010 World Cup, ‘The Flea,’ as Messi is affectionately known, was just so good that he managed to buck the trend of awarding a player from a winning team.
In 2011 he won the inaugural UEFA Best Player in Europe Award and was a nominee in 2012 and 2013. Everything points to this run of success continuing, and it won’t be a surprise if Messi wins half a dozen more awards before his career is out.
Football fans, regardless of club or national affiliation, are often stunned by the things Messi is able to do with the ball at his feet. When watching him embark on one of his jinking, wriggling attacking forays, reactions can range from open-mouthed silence to incredulous laughter. Perhaps the most amazing thing about him, though, is the early trajectory of his career and the records he has broken along the way. By 24 he was Barcelona’s all time highest scorer; by 25 he was the first player to top 200 goals in La Liga, the Spanish Football League; and by the age of 26 he secured 300 goals for Barcelona.
The peak years for a footballer are generally considered to be between the ages of 28 and 30. If this pint-sized maestro can continue on his current course, by the time he retires he will is likely to be regarded as the greatest footballer the game has ever seen, surpassing mythical players like countryman Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pelé. There are those who already consider him to be part of the pantheon:
“Messi is out of this planet, I would say he is so far ahead of the rest of the players playing right now and I would say historically as well. There are not words to describe him,” said 1978 World Cup player, Ossie Ardiles on BBC Radio 5 live.
A look at his list of achievements at such a young age helps to explain the sense of awe that surrounds him. Aside from a list of individual honors about as long as Messi is short, he has won titles with the Argentina national team at junior level and, most notably with his club side Barcelona. Apart from representing Argentina at two senior World Cups, Messi has also won an Under-20 World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in national team colors. With Barcelona he has already notched up four league titles, two European Champions League titles, one Spanish cup and the FIFA World Club Cup, as well as many more minor cup titles.
“His speed is astonishing, ” said Argentina teammate, Carlos Tevez. “It’s amazing how he can go 1 to 100 in just one second. I’m constantly around great players like Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Wayne] Rooney, But this guy is just a step up above every other great footballer out there at the moment, Not only is he quick, determined, and extremely intelligent on the ball, but his movement off the ball is just as fantastic – ‘unbelievable’ to sum it up in a word.”
Little Leo Messi
Messi’s career could have been over before it even began because his small stature once meant that no big clubs in Argentina were willing to sign him up. These days, Messi’s diminutive stature is often seen as an advantage on the field. His low center of gravity is pinpointed as one of the reasons he is able to stop on a dime and change direction instantly, sending less agile defenders reeling clumsily past like novice ice skaters.
Lionel Messi was born in Rosario, Santa Fe on 24 June, 1987 to a lower-middle class family. At the age of eight, he was recruited into Rosario club Newell’s Old Boy’s youth teams, where his considerable skills drew the attention of several big clubs. The tiny attacking midfielder suffered from a growth hormone deficiency though and Argentine teams like River Plate could not afford to pay for his treatment. Fortunately, Barcelona scouts had also spotted the talented youngster, and offered the 13-year-old Lio a trial in Spain. Barcelona’s coaching staff were impressed with what they saw, and the club offered to pay the medical bills for Messi’s family if they were willing to uproot to Catalonia. They accepted the deal and Barcelona have enjoyed the player’s loyalty ever since.
Messi debuted in the Barcelona first team in 2003 at the remarkable age of 16-and-a-half in a friendly match, making him the youngest ever Barcelona player at the time. His competitive debut came less than a year later when he established himself as a club superstar by scoring three goals against arch rivals Real Madrid in the 2006-07 season. Since putting early-career injury worries behind him, Messi has soared to success. His Barcelona team is regarded by many as the greatest team in history, and Messi is the jewel in the crown. The year 2010, at club level at least, was statistically his best yet. He scored an astonishing 42 goals, made 15 assists and completed 166 dribbles in the Spanish league, putting him at the top of the pile in all categories.
“He made the impossible possible. He has something exceptional. He is unstoppable. He is the best player in the world by some distance. He’s (like) a PlayStation player,” said Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger after Messi scored four goals against his team.
Messi and Argentina
Internationally, accolades for Messi have been flooding in for years but strangely, despite his talent, good-looks and affable manner, the Argentine public has taken longer to warm to him. A common gripe amongst media commentators and Argentina fans was that Messi never performed as well for the national team as he did for his club side. The theory went that he moved overseas at such a young age that he felt more Catalan than Argentine and therefore gave more to Barcelona.
Messi was often compared unfavorably to the man many in Argentina regard as a demigod, Diego Maradona. Messi, shy and retiring off the field, was said to lack the spark and leadership qualities of ‘El Diego.’ This attitude may have a lot to do with the fact that Messi never played senior football in Argentina. Most Argentine players who go on to play for big teams in Europe earn themselves a rabid fan base back home by spending a year or two with Boca, River or one of the other big teams in local football. Less talented players like Martin Palermo or Ariel Ortega, who failed to make an impression in Europe’s powerful leagues are in some ways higher profile in Argentina than Messi because they have spent years playing in the national league, and are therefore highly visible to local audiences.
It would be easy to understand why Messi would feel more loyalty to Barcelona, as local teams such as River Plate passed over the opportunity to sponsor him when he was just a promising youngster who needed expensive medical treatment. But through the years Messi has gradually won over Argentine fans as well, simply because he keeps performing at a phenomenal level.
Comments from Maradona himself anointing Messi as his successor have helped to convince the general populace. Although he was unable to score for Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, he was instrumental in almost all of the team’s goals, and was named by FIFA as one of the 10 best players of the tournament. Since then, he has scored a delightful goal against world champions Spain and, most importantly, led the win in 2010 and 2012 ‘friendly’ international matches against hated rivals Brazil.
Since most Argentines under 30 years of age won’t remember first-hand Diego Maradona’s heroics at the 1986 World Cup, and are perhaps even tiring of hearing older generations eulogize the man, Messi is becoming more and more of a next generation idol.
The only thing missing from his trophy cabinet is a World Cup. At 26, he probably has at least two tournaments left in him before he retires.
Whether he manages to pull off that feat remains to be seen. Even if he doesn’t, it’s likely that a lot of grandchildren in 50 years time will get bored to tears listening to stories of Lionel Messi, he who mesmerized the masses. Even the man who is most in love with the cult of Maradona, Diego Maradona himself, crowned Messi as his successor in 2010 :
“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius and he can become an even better player.”
—by Dan Colasimone
←cont from: Maradona: The Scandals
The most famous man in Argentina has not been able to settle down to a quiet life of retirement since leaving football. Drug and weight problems have continued to dog him. He underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2005 and has been to rehab on numerous occasions, most notably in 2000 and 2004, on both occasions suffering severe damage to his heart. Despite quitting drugs since, Maradona’s most recent trip to hospital was in 2007, after a binge of drinking, smoking cigars and eating to excessive levels saw his body collapse once more. He has also publicly supported Fidel Castro (and has the tattoo to prove it) and controversial Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. He declared on the latter’s TV program, “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”
On a less serious note, he has continued a running battle over the years with the other ‘greatest player of all time,’ Pele. The two trade insults regularly through the media, although the highlight (or lowlight) was probably when Pele fired a few barbs Diego’s way about his moral standards, and Maradona responded by telling Marca, “What do you want me to say? He lost his virginity to a man!”
In spite of all the controversy, Maradona remains immensely popular in Argentina. Argentinian psychologist and author Gustavo Bernstein wrote in his book, Maradona: Iconografia de la Patria (Icon of the Nation), “No one embodies our essence more. Argentina is Maradona. Maradona is Argentina.”
A group called ‘The Church of Maradona’ claims to be an official religion and boasts 100,000 members. For them, year zero is the year their idol was born— 1960.
For a few months in 2005, he even hosted his own talk show, “The Night of 10” (after his playing number) which scored sensational ratings throughout its run of 13 episodes. Guests included Fidel Castro, Mike Tyson and even Pele (the two were remarkable civil, even chummy, on this occasion).
It is this very popularity that earned Diego Maradona, an almost completely inexperienced trainer, the unlikely opportunity to coach his beloved Argentina at the World Cup. With the team struggling in qualifiers, and previous coach Alfio Basile deciding to quit his post, Argentinian Football Federation members decided to pander to popular will and name Maradona as the next coach. The decision was met with disbelief throughout the footballing world, and even among a lot of Argentina fans. They were prepared to love him as a player, but could someone whose behavior could be described as, at best, erratic, actually lead the powerful national team to success? In the end, despite the talent of the Argentina team, the answer was no.
Maradona has overseen a typically unpredictable qualifying campaign, which saw the team suffer heavy defeats to the mighty Brazil, and the minnows Bolivia. Eventually in the preliminary rounds the crucial games were won, though, Diego once again courted controversy by telling critical journalists that they could, “Suck it, and keep sucking it!” Before naming his, of course surprising, final squad to take to the tournament in South Africa, Diego managed to run over a cameraman’s leg in his car. Rather than stopping to apologize, he drove off shouting, “What an asshole you are! How could you put your leg under the wheel, man?”
Whatever happens after the World Cup, if it involves Maradona, it is guaranteed to be entertaining. He will no doubt continue to surprise the world. He probably even surprises himself sometimes.
In a grainy interview in 1975 with a pubescent Maradona, he comes across as shy but determined. “I have two dreams,” he says with self-assurance that contains none of his later braggadocio. “My first dream is to play in the World Cup. And the second dream is to win it.”
Even that shaggy-haired teenager, already confident in his own talent, probably didn’t dare to imagine that one day he would be entrusted to lead Argentina to the World Cup, not as a player, but as the guy in the suit: the coach. The tournament in South Africa proved that greatness on the field does not necessarily translate to greatness off it, however. Maradona, who constantly claimed that God was on his side during Argentina’s campaign, was demoralized to the point of tears after his team’s loss to Germany in the quarter final. After calls by many for Maradona to step down as coach, the Argentinian Football Federation chief, Julio Grondona refused to fire him, saying, “The decision depends on Maradona. The only person in Argentina who can do whatever he wants is Diego.” Yes, that sounds about right, actually.
—by Dan Colasimone
The World Cup and The Hand of God
Diego Maradona appeared in four World Cup tournaments— more than any other Argentinian. He had his moments in 1982 as a youngster and in 1994 as a veteran and cunningly helped his team to the final in Italy ‘90, but the tournament that will forever be associated with the name Diego Maradona was Mexico 1986.
He dominated that World Cup like no single player before or since, leading a fairly average Argentina team to glory, scoring five goals and setting up five more along the way.
The defining match of that tournament, and of his career, came in the quarter final against England. The Falklands War was still a recent memory, and Maradona was out to get what he later referred to as “a little bit of revenge.”
Six minutes into the second half, Maradona initiated an attack into the heart of the England defense, before laying the ball off to a teammate and surging forward. The ball was lobbed back in his direction by a panicked England defender and Diego leaped up in front of the goalkeeper to seemingly head the ball into the net.
English players protested vehemently, and with just cause. Somehow the match officials had missed what most people had seen — the vertically challenged Maradona had actually reached up and punched the ball into the net.
The cheeky Argentinian famously said after the match that the goal had been scored “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.” It was probably the most controversial moment at any World Cup, and English fans have never forgotten his act of deception.
‘The Goal of the Century’
Nor could anyone forget what happened just four minutes later. Diego received the ball a few yards behind the halfway line and produced a pirouette which left three defenders bamboozled. He then surged along the right hand touchline at pace, before somehow accelerating even more, slaloming past more English players as he hurdled towards goal. Entering the box, he dummied another defender, left the goalkeeper sprawled on the ground with a jink, then clipped the ball into the back of the net.
‘The Goal of the Century’, as it became known, stunned England and amazed the world. Argentinian commentator Victor Hugo Morales sobbed with joy as he screamed, “Cosmic kite, what planet are you from that you can leave so many Englishmen in your wake?… Thank you God! For football! For Maradona! For these tears! For this 2-0!”
In just four minutes, Diego had demonstrated two contrasting facets of his persona — the streetwise scrapper with no qualms in flaunting the rules to get what he wanted, and the footballing genius who seemed to be from another world when he had the ball at his feet.
The only positive to come out of Argentina’s humiliating 0-4 loss to the Germans in the 2010 World Cup Quarter Finals is that at least the nation’s citizens didn’t have to undergo the ordeal of seeing once great footballer, Diego Maradona run through the streets of Buenos Aires naked, as he had promised to do if the Argentina team he was coaching won the tournament. He may have claimed to be off drugs but outrageous behavior is nothing new for this one-time street urchin from the shantytown of Villa Fiorito whose life and career have been decorated with almost as much controversy as brilliance.
⇒ Take the Buenos Aires Diego Maradona Tour
In the end, the 2010 World Cup ended in tears for ‘El Diego’, but who would have imagined that such a rule-breaker would even end up in such a distinguished position as national team coach? Who would have thought that a man who has spent his entire adult life fighting against the establishment, would one day become a part of it?
The guy who once sported dinky little shorts and an afro as he scored the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal with his clenched fist now wears a dodgy gray-flecked beard as he paces the sidelines, looking like someone who has been forced to put on a suit for a court appearance. He may have been to rehab countless times, but adoring fans all over the world prefer to focus on his on-field triumphs, which have led many to consider him the greatest player of all time, and earned him the nickname ‘God.’
Maradona’s Soccer Career
Diego Armando Maradona learned to play soccer on the dusty streets of the villa miseria (slum) known as Fiorita. It was there that, as a slightly tubby ten-year-old, his dazzling ball skills won him a place in the local junior team, a feeder for first division club, Argentinos Juniors. His prodigious talent meant that it was not too long before people realized that he was something special.
His first coach, Francisco Cornejo, describes the first time he saw young Diego doing tricks with the ball. “I looked at his parents, and said ‘He’s strange, right?’ And they looked at me and said, ‘Yep, he’s strange.’”
At the ridiculously young age of 16, Maradona made his debut in the Argentinian top division for Argentinos Juniors. His star shone brightly for the next five seasons, and he managed to rack up 143 goals and earn himself a dream move to his favorite club, Boca Juniors.
He only spent one year in his first stint with the team he is most associated with in Argentina, as the big European clubs came knocking on Maradona’s door.
In 1982, Maradona transferred to Barcelona, of Spain, but he most famously starred in Europe for modest Italian team Napoli, leading them to two championships in 1986/87 and 1989/90.
His status for Napoli fans, and many Italians in general, is on a par with the adoration he receives back in his homeland.
With his personal life spiraling out of control, Diego eventually returned to Argentina and his beloved Boca Juniors (after one season with Newell’s Old Boys) to play out his remaining years. His brilliant career was acknowledged in 2000 when he was awarded the title of ‘Player of the Century’ (to be shared with Brazilian great, Pele) by the sport’s governing body, FIFA, after topping a worldwide internet vote.
→ cont. reading Dan Colasimone’s: Maradona: Goal of the Century