James Lawton: Who is the greatest?
Both came from Argentina to light up Europe, but Lineker is off the mark in claim that Messi is better than magical Maradona
Published 15/03/2013 | 05:00
Gary Lineker was on the same field when Diego Maradona scored, along with the notorious Hand of God strike, arguably the most brilliant goal in the history of the World Cup.
He was also one of the fallen who saw Maradona proceed successfully in his mission to come as close as humanly possible to single-handedly winning the great tournament.
In the semi-final Maradona scored another astonishing goal against Belgium and then, in the final, after being sometimes tripled marked, produced the killer pass which delivered Argentina's victory over West Germany.
This may be old football history, but it still makes doubly astonishing Lineker's emphatic claim that Maradona's compatriot Lionel Messi is proving to be a superior player.
the little man is, of course, a luminously brilliant player. If we had lost sight of this in the brief decline of his club Barcelona, we were reminded dramatically, even sublimely, when Messi created the momentum for their Champions League recovery against Milan this week.
Messi was back to his best with goals of exquisite timing and skill.
One of his efforts was a near replica of the one that killed off Manchester United at Wembley in the Champions League final of 2011. It permitted no adequate response. Messi scores a torrent of goals and he is a performer whose range of talent is only equalled by the good-heartedness of his effort.
However, this is not the same as saying that Messi has surpassed the man who delivered his nation the ultimate football prize in Mexico City in 1986, a winner who, at that time, walked into a leading restaurant and caused tumult among the Argentinian fans.
He was feted wherever he went and back home, his celebrity has hardly waned down the long years of misadventure, the reported drug abuse and even the ultimate fiasco of his coaching of the national team in the last World Cup in South Africa.
Only the most enduring achievement creates such a foundation of national regard and, in the case of Maradona, it came on a battlefield which Messi is still, for all his gifts, to properly engage.
Of course Messi has mesmerising qualities. Of course he and his fierce rival Cristiano Ronaldo dominate the modern club game. But Messi, and for that matter Ronaldo, have ever proclaimed themselves on the international stage in the way that Maradona did.
Messi is the most beautiful expression of the Barca game, but Maradona was something more when he raised the Argentina game in that World Cup, when he ran through the England defence as though it did not exist and then slid the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
He was the team's heart and soul and sinew. Without him, it is doubtful if Argentina would have made it past the quarter-finals. Messi, it should perhaps be remembered, was nurtured by the great club Barca, who had already won one of their three Champions League titles in seven years before he was fully established in the first team.
Two Champions League titles is no small return for Messi's inspiration and his contribution to La Liga dominance has been huge. However, that doesn't take him into the level of debate that surrounds the rival claims of Argentina and Brazil in regard to Maradona and Pele.
Here, the issue concerns the identity of the world's greatest player, a status that has previously been significantly affected by performance in the World's No 1 football tournament. Pele outshone everyone in the 1970 World Cup final, he was the teenaged wunderkind of the one in Sweden 12 years earlier and, in between, he was substantially kicked out of those staged in Chile and England.
None of this, however, stifled the debate that in the end Maradona, for all his faults, might be declared the world's greatest footballer. Why? Because what Maradona achieved in Mexico City was an extraordinary compression of a lifetime's passion. It was as though he picked up his team-mates and carried them across the finish line. It was as though he had banished the concept of defeat.
There is also a great feeling for Maradona in Naples, where he moved after his unsatisfactory stay, ironically enough, in Barcelona. In Naples, Maradona was more than a mere footballer.
He became a symbol of the city's yearning to beat back the contempt in which it was held by so much of the rest of Italy.
Maradona, it seems, was negligent in the matter of paying his income tax, but his contribution to the cause of Napoli could scarcely have been more full-blooded. In that age of cynical Italian defence, Maradona drove Napoli to two Serie A titles. He was fouled relentlessly and ferociously and in a way Messi and his supporters could hardly imagine today.
Maradona courted controversy, did drugs, was frequently dependent on cortisone injects and pain-killers, made some dubious friends and when he was pursued in a paternity case he claimed that he had merely had a coffee with the young woman concerned.
"We have strong coffee in Naples, Maradona" one newspaper gleefully declared.
Napoli adored Maradona and to such an extent that when Italy and Argentina met in the city for the World Cup semi-final of 1990, many locals were said to suffer split loyalties. That was another mediocre Argentina team, but Maradona drove them to the final in Rome, where Germany won narrowly.
Such facts might get lost in the weight of Messi's extraordinary statistics and if we are talking strictly of the most beautiful talent, it is another argument for the Little Maestro of the Nou Camp, another justification for that declarative tweet of Lineker.
However, there is another point and it is one which for anyone who saw him in action, or who noted the force if his commitment, it is difficult to banish.
It concerns the ability of one player to inflict himself decisively on the greatest events. It certainly makes the position of the former England striker that little bit more difficult to grasp.
Lineker felt the force of Maradona, and along with all his team-mates, knows the damage it caused to his highest ambitions. Maradona was both brilliant and implacable on the greatest stage in world football and for some, Messi, still lives under the shadow of such a deed.
He is not exactly overwhelmed by it, of course, not when he counts up his world player of the year titles and considers his contribution to the resurrection of Barcelona.
However, Maradona beat the world largely through his own will and that still leaves Messi with quite a bit to do.