By Marcela Morayaraujo
April 15, 2010

Over the past few weeks Barcelona's Lionel Messi has stunned the soccer world with some of the most superlative performances people have ever seen -- relentlessly bettering himself and his team and enhancing the game itself.

With the World Cup fast approaching, the question around the globe is whether Messi will be as masterful with Argentina as he's been with Barcelona. Inevitably, comparisons with his countryman and international manager Diego Maradona have hogged the debate.

Here's the rub: Maybe the question shouldn't be, Is Messi as good as Maradona, but rather, Was Maradona as good as Messi?

Messi will turn 23 in June, and he has already accomplished more than Maradona had at his age. As Barcelona's Sport newspaper pointed out, comparing the two players, Messi has won 12 titles, 10 with Barcelona and two with Argentina. Maradona, at the same stage in his career, had only two: one with Boca Juniors and one with Argentina.

And although Maradona made his debut in the first division of professional club football (10 days before his 16th birthday) and in Argentina's national side at a slightly younger age than Messi (who was 16 years old, 145 days when debuting for Barça), Messi was younger than Maradona in his first World Cup appearance.

Messi played a deciding role in the youth World Cup of Holland 2005 (a year before his first World Cup, just as Maradona excelled in the 1979 Youth World Cup in Japan before his 1982 World Cup). Messi was also the shining star of the gold medal Olympic squad in Beijing, making a very public and strong personal stance to play against the wishes of employer club Barcelona. And he was at times mesmerizing in the 2007 Copa America, reaching the finals in superb synchronicity with Juan Roman Riquelme, just before Argentina started to become enigmatically underachieving.

Yet until last week Messi had been the target of criticism in his native country. Fans and the press blamed Messi for Argentina's struggle to qualify for the World Cup finals. The facts that he left the country at a young age, never playing professional club football in Argentina and lacks the demeanor of Maradona (outgoing, feisty, a natural leader) also exposed Messi to harshness.

Maradona as manager did not appease the situation but rather fed it. His comments on Messi -- "He is not playing as well as I would like," for example -- contrast starkly with remarks by Barça's Pep Guardiola after below-par Messi performances. "He can have as many bad games as he wants," Guardiola has said. "He will still be Messi."

Then, after Messi scored a Champions League record-tying four goals against Arsenal on April 5, Argentina changed its tune. Messi's goals were on a loop in practically every screen in Buenos Aires. Every football chat show on every media -- and that's a lot of shows -- discussed in detail the genius of a man the nation now proudly claimed as one of its own.

"Messi is the best in the world in the national team and in Barcelona and he knows it," ex-national teammate Riquelme said last week in Pagina 12. "The difference is that [in Barcelona] there are always five or six options of passes to him, which makes him impossible to mark."

The tactical analysis of Barcelona's system has been a hot topic with newly appointed River Plate manager Angel Cappa who is known as "Tiki Tiki" for the high regard in which he holds a game of many touches and passes. "He [Messi] has Argentine roots but is a universal player. Like [Jorge Luis] Borges, he transcends the barriers of nationality" Cappa said in El Comericio, adding that the Barcelona team works in harmony. "No one is the conductor, they all play one or two touches. They all share the same football philosophy and Messi adds his brilliance."

There followed another splendid Messi performance, including an early goal, against Barcelona's archrivals and close contenders for first place in La Liga, Real Madrid. Headlines said that Messie was "Out of This Planet" and that he had "Eclipsed Cristiano Ronaldo"

The greats started chiming in. "First they have to decide who is the best Argentinean," Pele said. "And then they will have to score 1,000 goals before they can be compared to me." Added Johan Cruyff : "Pele was a hero, so was I. Now it's [Messi's] turn."

Mario Kempes, Golden Boot and World Cup winner for Argentina in 1978, has characteristically been the voice of reason. "He's a human being, a football player. Anyone can shadow him, mark him, or stop him" said Kempes to EFE. "What he has achieved with Barcelona this season is remarkable, but he still seeks the cherry on the cake which would be the World Cup." Kempes went on to stress the importance of team work, saying Messi cannot do this alone: "A squad is made up of a group of players, and it's the group that has to take the team forward. This is something Maradona will have to work on."

That's why the onus is now on Maradona to shift whatever needs shifting within his star-studded squad and to ensure that he finds the right players to deliver those perfect passes to Messi. Maradona needs to inspire the talented Argentinian team to rise and match Messi's own absurdly high standard. So maybe the real question of the World Cup is: Can Maradona the manager be good enough to let Messi shine?

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