Here's the problem with the Messi vs. Maradona debate

TOPSHOT - A man passes by a mural depicting Argentine football stars Lionel Messi (L) and late Diego Maradona (R) in the eve of Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France in Buenos Aires, on December 16, 2022. (Photo by Luis ROBAYO / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A man passes by a mural depicting Argentine football stars Lionel Messi (L) and late Diego Maradona (R) in the eve of Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France in Buenos Aires, on December 16, 2022. (Photo by Luis ROBAYO / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

DOHA, Qatar — The Lionel Messi-Diego Maradona debate has never been all that rational. It has reappeared ahead of Sunday’s 2022 World Cup final, with Messi one step away from clearing the hurdle that Maradona memorably did in 1986. And if the debate were a rational one, the current framing would be this: Messi could settle it once and for all with a win over France, because, for now, for at least one more day, a World Cup title is the lone accolade that Maradona had and Messi still doesn’t.

In every single other category, the comparisons are borderline absurd. Messi could finish his career with three times as many goals as Maradona and four times as many trophies. Some of those gulfs are products of era and opportunity, but Messi has essentially replicated Maradona’s fleeting peak and sustained it over 15 stunning years. He is peerless.

Yet there are fans, especially older Argentines, who will argue that Messi won’t — and can’t — ever match their original soccer God.

Because the debate has always been influenced by who Maradona was and who Messi is, and what they represent, not solely by what they’ve done.

Maradona was a son of the barrios, a kid from Argentina’s suffocating slums who outran poverty toward greatness. He was flawed, terribly flawed, and struggled with a drug addiction that ultimately derailed his career — but millions of Argentines identified with the struggle. When he won it, temporarily, and lifted his countrymen with him to World Cup glory, they deified him.

By the time Messi arrived on their television screens in the early 2000s, Maradona was an unmovable legend. Messi, meanwhile, was an unknowable kid who left behind a lower-middle-class existence in Argentina for greener pastures in Spain at age 13. Whereas Maradona was brash and brutally charming, Messi was introverted, clean-cut and unemotional. He was almost alien, and no matter how hard he tried to maintain connections to his Rosario roots, the only way he could prove to Argentines that he was one of them was to win something for them.

And for years, he couldn’t.

For the first decade of his international career, Messi underperformed for his national team. His failures have been overstated — he has, after all, broken just about every Argentina goalscoring record, and almost tripled Maradona’s total — and many weren’t primarily his fault. The Argentine soccer federation was a mess; his coaches (including Maradona) were incompetent; his teams were incoherent. But none of that mattered to Maradona in ‘86; he dragged a sub-elite team to a title. Messi, consumed by public pressure to do likewise, often wilted on similar stages.

Close up of a set of twins wearing shirts featuring Argentina's Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona before the FIFA World Cup Semi-Final match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. Picture date: Tuesday December 13, 2022. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
Close up of a set of twins wearing shirts featuring Argentina's Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona before the FIFA World Cup Semi-Final match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. Picture date: Tuesday December 13, 2022. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

And there was Maradona, still a prominent figure in Argentine soccer, ready to pounce and punctuate widespread Messi criticism.

"We shouldn't deify Messi any longer," Maradona said in 2018. "He's a great player but he's not a leader. It's useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game."

All the while, though, Messi did things at Barcelona, at the highest level of club soccer, that mortals could never dream of. He won the Ballon d’Or — his first of seven and counting — by the widest-ever margin at age 22. He scored 91 goals in a calendar year (Maradona never scored more than 60). He won Champions Leagues (Maradona never won the European Cup). He scored and assisted at ridiculous rates, from multiple positions, in multiple competitions, with a rotating cast of characters around him, with dizzying darts and superb technique and dashes of brilliance, from his teenage years to the present.

"Messi is Maradona every day. For the last five years, Messi has been the Maradona of the [1986] World Cup,” Jorge Valdano, who won that World Cup alongside Maradona, said in 2013. And he’s been, at worst, almost as good over the nine years since.

“Messi is at the level of the best Maradona,” César Menotti, who managed Argentina to the 1978 World Cup title, said in 2014.

Messi is, to most rational analysts, the best soccer player ever — the most talented, and the most accomplished. Both the eye test and numbers leave little room for doubt.

But he will never have the primacy effect that Maradona did.

He will never score an infamously devious goal and a “Goal of the Century” to win a World Cup quarterfinal against a nation, England, who’d recently defeated Argentina in a disastrous war.

He will never forge such an intimate relationship with his people. There is a reason that Maradona’s face shows up more frequently than Messi’s on flags and banners that Argentine supporters have brought here to Qatar. There is a reason that “Diego” appears three times in the anthem that has become Argentina’s unofficial 2022 World Cup soundtrack.

“From the sky we can see him,” fans sing, “along with Don Diego and La Tota [Maradona’s parents], rooting for Lionel.”

Messi’s 2022 run has captivated Argentina in its own right. Together with last year’s Copa America — which Maradona never won — it has turned most Argentine skepticism into undying love. And if it ends in a World Cup title, it will crystalize Messi as the greatest of all time, the GOAT.

But still, for some, it won’t put him on par with Maradona. Nothing can.