Maradona's recent comments of countryman Lionel Messi are the latest addition to his list of contentious public remarks.
Diego Maradona will always be endeared to the people of Argentina for winning the 1986 World Cup and serving as a figure of great pride in the country throughout his career and to the present day. To others around the world, Maradona has played more of an anti-hero or downright villain. From the infamous “Hand of God” to comments through the years of his own majesty, the Argentine legend has been nothing short of controversial. His recent comments of countryman Lionel Messi are the latest addition to his list of contentious public remarks.
Before Messi scored an inspired hat-trick against Panama as a second half substitute, Maradona commented that the Barcelona forward has “no personality” and lacked the character needed to be a great leader. The 1986 World Cup winner was of course referring to Messi’s role with the Argentina national team as captain, and it should be assumed that it is just another in a long line of criticisms for Messi that he has only captured one international honor, a 2008 Olympic gold medal. Since receiving the captain’s armband, he has led his home country to several finals, including extra time at the last World Cup against Germany.
Many can try to critique Messi’s career at Barcelona and many will fail. With 312 goals in 348 club appearances and countless trophies alongside Andrés Iniesta and a pantheon of Camp Nou legends, Messi has achieved the types of personal and team goals that every player in the world dreams about. However, Messi has said in the past that he would trade all of his club glory to bring back a World Cup trophy to his native Argentina.
A true testament to Messi’s greatness is the argument for the best player in the world. He already has himself in the conversation with Pele and Maradona merely based on his accomplishments with his club. Yet, soccer traditionalists and many fans around the world see the World Cup as the benchmark for the player that could call themselves the best ever. Pele’s multiple trophies and Maradona’s herculean effort in Mexico in 1986 give them the edge in this category, though Messi’s 53 goals in 109 international appearances isn’t a tally to be taken lightly. His lack of trophies at the international level is the place where the critics feast on Messi’s apparent lack of leadership.
There are different reasons for coaches to choose certain captains, and while Maradona disagrees, Messi has all the qualities necessary to be a successful leader. Some leaders lead by example, the epitome of what teammates and coaches have said of the diminutive magician for decades. Messi trains at an extremely high level and Iniesta to Xavi Hernandez to Ronaldinho have all glowed at his ability to raise the level of his teammates in practices.
As for his ability as a leader with words, this is where the media find their opening. Barcelona has a number of vocal leaders, including fellow Argentina international Javier Mascherano. In fact, Mascherano wears the captain’s armband when Messi is unavailable, as he was in the first game of the Copa America Centenario against Chile. With Argentina, there may not be as many vocal leaders, but they do compare to Barcelona in their healthy number of attacking options.
The coach and his captain must get the best out of every player on the field, and Maradona feels that the Argentina captain is being weighed down by the responsibility of leading the team in every facet. Unlike Barcelona, Argentina’s riches of forwards and midfielders don’t always have the same duties and positions from game to game. If Messi is concerning himself with guiding his compatriots through their responsibilities during a game, he may not be able to enforce his own will on the game.
Maradona has always said, “If you demand Leo plays with his right (leg), he will play poorly. You have to let him play.” By and large, this claim should be immediately dismissed due to the proven success that Messi has had by “only” using his left leg. Maradona’s comment may still be partial fallout from his time as the coach of Argentina at the 2010 World Cup and Argentina’s unfortunate exit in a thrashing to Germany. He has since said that he stands by his comments that he made to Pele about Messi, but that it was never intended to be a criticism.
While criticism has never been shown to bother Messi, it will continue to rear its ugly head until Messi has success on the international stage. Argentina currently looks on its way to capturing the Copa America Centenario title, and that could be a fantastic starting point.
Hopefully, the 2018 World Cup in Russia could be the tournament that the then-30-year-old Messi would use to silence all his critics by finally getting over the largest obstacle in his career to date.