Brendan Crossan: Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi? There's only one winner...
IF YOU ask those of a certain vintage, they will remember instantly where they were when Diego Maradona scored his second goal against England at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.
I was sitting in a lounge bar in Redcastle, just outside Moville, watching the quarter-final with my mother and father. Although it was 30 years ago, I vividly remember Maradona accepting a short pass from Enrique and spinning away from two England players just inside his own half and carving a path to the greatest goal in the history of the World Cup.
I remember Peter Reid trailing in the great man’s wake, hurdling past Terry Fenwick and then giving big Terry Butcher the slip. After dummying Peter Shilton, Maradona still had the composure to slot the ball into the England net despite Butcher’s last, desperate attempt to stop him.
There were around a dozen people in the Redcastle lounge witnessing this great moment. Spontaneous applause broke out in the bar. I remember feeling mesmerised, totally in awe of this little Argentine.
I didn’t know football could propel you to such an idyllic place. It is impossible to describe, but I had a feeling of spiritual contentment watching this goal.
Every time I watch the goal back, I imagine different conclusions. If Terry Fenwick had hauled Maradona down and given away a free-kick, the greatest World Cup goal would never have been scored.
If Butcher had got there a split second earlier, it might have been enough to dislodge the ball from Maradona’s glue-like grasp. And if Shilton had narrowed his angles better, he could have forced Maradona and the ball into touch.
Observers have suggested, with some persuasion, that if Maradona had played in any of the teams that reached the quarter-finals, that team would have gone on to win the World Cup in ’86.
Maradona’s inspiring displays in Mexico eclipsed Pele’s for Brazil 16 years earlier at the 1970 finals. Since ’86, nobody has come close to influencing a World Cup in way Maradona did.
Not even his compatriot Lionel Messi. It’s always a subjective business when ranking players from different eras - but in my opinion, Maradona and Messi are the two best players to have ever played the game.
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t diminish Messi’s greatness in any way that he hasn’t won a World Cup. After all, there are so many factors beyond Messi’s control.
For instance, the ability of the manager is crucial. While Maradona was lucky to have Carlos Bilardo in charge in ’86, Messi wasn’t so fortunate.
Jose Pekerman, inexplicably, held Messi in reserve for most of the 2006 World Cup finals, while Diego Maradona, as Argentina manager, displayed scant regard for defending at the 2010 finals.
Messi, for his part, kept up his end of the bargain in South Africa and was easily Argentina’s best player in each of their games until they crashed out to Germany at the quarter-final stage. At the 2014 World Cup, Messi and Argentina did well to push worthy champions Germany to extra-time in the decider.
Just when support occasionally wavers over Messi’s claims to be the best-ever, he produces wonderful reminders of his genius. Last Sunday’s Catalan derby between Barcelona and Espanyol was another case in point, where Messi produced two incredible dribbles in the second-half that cut through the visiting defence. The pace, control and the sharp change of direction were sights to behold.
Messi’s influence is probably greater than it has ever been on Barcelona. With Xavi no longer around and Andres Iniesta making only fleeting appearances this season, Messi has been able to drop deeper, dictate the play and still be as lethal as ever in front of goal.
Of course, Messi is surrounded by world-class players, whereas Maradona didn’t have that same luxury when he was guiding modest Napoli to two Italian league titles in 1986/87 and 1989/90.
But when you sift through the Napoli team-sheet of the mid-to-late 1980s, Maradona did play with some classy operators. Careca and Andrea Carnevale were two excellent strikers. Salvatore Bagni and Fernando De Napoli were tough, canny midfielders, while Alessandro Renica marshalled the back-line.
Nevertheless, wrestling the Serie A title away from the strongholds of Juventus and AC Milan was an astonishing feat by Maradona. He also played in an era where the tackle from behind was permitted - and yet, he still flourished in the face of the crudest kind of defending.
Nowadays, however, defending has become more sophisticated. Even the lesser teams can park the bus and squeeze the space between their defensive lines.
But despite being denied space to operate in, Messi still flourishes. In the 2009 and '11 Champions League finals, he produced performances fitting of the lofty stage.
When trying to determine the best that’s ever been, it’s also worth examining the scrutiny players were/are under. Outside of the 1986 and 1990 World Cup finals - where there was a sharp decline in his physical fitness - we only saw snatches of Maradona’s prowess at club level.
Television viewers would be afforded 30-second clips of Napoli’s games, where Maradona invariably floated another free-kick into the top corner of the opposition’s net or dribble past three or four defenders to score. That’s all the technology of that era afforded us of El Diego. There was a lot of in-between stuff we didn’t get to see.
By contrast, the scrutiny of Messi from a global perspective is incomparable. We are blessed to see him play live on a weekly - sometimes twice-weekly - basis and his performances rarely dip below a seven or eight-out-of-10.
Given the longevity of his career and mesmeric performances on a consistent basis, it’s reached the stage where it’s impossible to deny Messi’s claims of being the best-ever.