Brendan Crossan: Lionel Messi's fairytale rivalling Diego Maradona's of 86

Argentina's Lionel Messi has guided his country to the cusp of World Cup glory
Argentina's Lionel Messi has guided his country to the cusp of World Cup glory

IN terms of tournament performances, nothing will touch what Diego Maradona produced at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

Doing the rounds on social media this week were clips of Maradona’s semi-final performance against Belgium in 86, where he scored the two goals that sealed Argentina’s World Cup final place.

It has been latterly regarded as his most complete performance during those finals.

An undoubtedly brilliant display, but when you delve into any of the match archives of ’86, it is nigh on impossible to pull out one performance and say it was better than all others because Maradona produced a flawless series of complete performances in Mexico.

Arguably his most subdued display came in the World Cup final against West Germany. Man-marked by a young Lothar Matthaus, Maradona wasn’t afforded the same space he got in other games.

Although he had to contend with the ever worsening pitch surface at the Azteca Stadium by the time the final came around, Maradona still had a hand in all three of Argentina's goals, as they saw off a late comeback from the Germans to win 3-2.

Sift through Argentina’s group games against Bulgaria, South Korea and Italy and Maradona excelled in each of them.

Memorably, Maradona schooled his Napoli team-mate and Azzurri hard man Salvatore Bagni in Puebla who tried to man-mark him as the defending champions and Argentina played out a robust 1-1 draw, with Maradona finding the net with a deft finish.

Indeed, as soon as Argentina took to the field in their opener against South Korea, Maradona hit the ground running. He delivered another sublime performance against the Bulgarians as they tried to hack him down at every opportunity.

His performances in knock-out games against Uruguay and England were as good as what he ended up producing against the Belgians. In every game, Maradona was Argentina’s match winner.

He played football from another world. He was a magical, exhilarating footballer.

As a kid, I always loved football – but I loved it even more because of what Maradona achieved in the summer of '86. He sparked an uncontainable joy in all of us.

Quite naturally, there are so many comparisons being drawn between Maradona in ’86 and Lionel Messi at the 2022 World Cup finals.

Those blessed to have watched Maradona in the blazing heat of Mexico all those years ago never believed another football fairytale could rival it.

It was impossible. Could never happen.

And yet, 36 years on, a fairytale of comparable magnitude and genius is unfolding in Qatar.

Unfairly derided for never managing to lead Argentina to a World Cup, Messi is on the cusp of doing exactly that.

Maradona was 25 and at his absolute peak when he won the World Cup in 1986.

Messi is 35, past his peak years, but is still carrying the weight of a nation - and global audience - as he heads into Sunday's World Cup final against France.

No longer the livewire of his late teens and early 20s, Messi has reinvented himself and is still playing mesmerising football.

He is now very much a player of moments - wonderful, dreamy moments that resonate so strongly with Maradona's beguiling ways and slalom runs of '86.

In Argentina's make-or-break games in Qatar against Mexico, Poland, Australia, Holland and Croatia, Messi was easily the team's best player.

It was often argued in '86, had Maradona played in any of the teams that reached the quarter-finals, that team would have gone on to lift the World Cup.

The same could be said of Messi in this World Cup and his immeasurable influence in games. But the parallels don't stop there between Maradona and Messi 36 years apart.

Their respective support casts are uncannily similar. Although it is desperately difficult to compare players and teams from very different eras, Maradona might well have had a slightly stronger team around him than Messi does in Qatar right now.

Argentina were more than merely workmanlike in 1986. They had three of the best man-markers in their ranks. Oscar Ruggeri was the best defender in Mexico and was the defensive lynchpin for many years after.

On the eve of the '86 finals, Daniel Passerella suffered injury which paved the way for little-known Jose Luis Brown to come into the centre of the Argentine defence and play way and above his usual standard.

At right back, Jose Luis Cuciuffo was another teak-tough defender and a brilliant man-marker. Julio Olarticoechea won the left back berth from Oscar Garre not long into the tournament, proving adept at breaking forward.

Even though Nery Pumpido was an average enough goalkeeper, Argentina's back four in ’86 were virtually impregnable.

Ricardo Guisti was the midfield enforcer during Maradona's era, hard as nails and could play a bit too.

And while it's impossible to overstate Maradona's influence over the side, it's also impossible to downplay the importance of Jorge Valdano, a cultured striker at Real Madrid at the time, and the brilliant Jorge Burruchaga who struck up a telepathic understanding with Maradona.

Messi's Argentina definitely boast a better keeper than '86, in the inspirational Emilano Martinez, centre back Nicolas Otamendi was a defensive liability in previous World Cup campaigns but has been outstanding in this one.

Coach Lionel Scaloni has juggled his full-backs throughout the tournament and has definitely settled on the impressive Nahuel Molina at right back.

In midfield, the ever-improving Rodrigo De Paul is Argentina's modern-day answer to Guisti; attacking midfielder Enzo Fernandez has emerged in the same way Hector Enrique did in Mexico, while Julian Alvarez is proving to be a latter-day Burruchaga given his excellent understanding with Messi.

Whatever happens in the Lusail Stadium on Sunday against the French, Lionel Messi’s leadership skills can never be questioned again.

Surrounded by an honest but mediocre cast, Messi has silenced all the dissenting voices.

In truth, their noise never had much justification in the first place.

2022 World Cup Team of the tournament

1. Emilano Martinez (Argentina)

2. Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)

3. Alphonso Davies (Canada)

4. Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina)

5. Josko Gvardiol (Croatia)

6. Tyler Adams (USA)

7. Azzedine Ounahi (Morocco)

8. Antoine Griezmann (France)

9. Julian Alvarez (Argentina)

10. Lionel Messi (Argentina)

11. Kylian Mbappe (France)