Perhaps experience and wisdom should dictate that the gun not be jumped and the second leg be over before showering accolades on "the greatest team ever" and "the best player ever" but impatience has set in and the world press focus is once again on the young Maestro of the ball -- nowhere more so than in his homeland, Argentina, where comparisons with Maradona have fallen short. Instead, Clarin newspaper asked this week, could we be looking at the modern version of Real Madrid's Alfredo Di Stefano?
Di Stefano, the Blonde Arrow, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1926 (but would later play internationally for Spain) and played soccer on street corners and vacant lots, sometimes in the big Lezama Park at the end of the main road leading to the Boca Stadium, or around the stadium itself. His own father was born right next to what is now the entrance to the executive car park and when Alfredo was sent on errands to the shops he would always refine his foot skills by dribbling and kicking something along the way.
"The entire playing field fitted inside his shoes. The pitch was born in his feet and in his feet grew. From goal to goal, Alfredo Di Stefano ran over and over the pitch" wrote Eduardo Galeano of the Argentine born who would one day win the Best European Footballer of all time accolade. Galeano continues: "With the ball at his feet, changing fronts, changing rhythms, from restful trot to unstoppable cyclon; without the ball, losing his mark toward the empty spaces and looking for air whenever a game started to choke."
Archive footage exists showing the graceful elegance of the man many regard as the inventor of modern football. A player who truly covered all areas, albeit from a time when many often had to do so -- "I've even played in goal" he once told me laughing, "Carrizo was injured and in those days there were no substitutions allowed so I just had to step in and be goalie" -- he is better known as a forward and holds impressive goal scoring records: 227 goals in 329 games in Spain make him the Spainish league's third all-time leading scorer. A further 216 goals in 282 matches for Real Madrid make him the club's leading league goal scorer of all time.
It was Santiago Bernabeu himself who personally chose Di Stefano as a player for the team which would rule Europe halfway through last century. "Every great team must have at least two Argentines and no English player" Bernabeu pronounced controversially. Now, history says his is the name of the stadium and Alfredo Di Stefano it's greatest living legend.
Barcelona by contrast does not have a similar individual legend whose name is so closely identified with the club. "Neither the Hungarian Ladislao Kibala, nor César Rodríguez (the top goal scorer). Neither wise man [Johan] Kruyff, nor Luis Suárez. Nor any of the more recent ullustrious foreigners: Maradona, Hristo Stoitchkov, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o. And the list goes on" wrote eminent columnist Bertolotto, who claims that aged 23, Messi is already becoming synonymous with the club. "To say Lionel Messi, will be to say Barcelona".
Historical comparisons are questionable enterprises at the best of times, but that hasn't stopped Maradona from giving a rare long in-depth interview in Argentina this week which has been picked up round the globe with the highlighted quote "history will say which of us is the best." Just a few weeks ago, The Associated Press gathered its international resources to compile a meticulous survey of whether or not this Barcelona side is the greatest team in the world ever, asking many of the most influential names in the game for their informed opinion.
Before concluding that the assertion is impossible to verify, comparisons can be worthy of undertaking. Aside from some obvious differences in the nature of the game and the times, there are marked differences between Messi and Di Stefano -- some of which only lend weight to the similarities by virtue of the contrast.
Messi, like Di Stefano, has picked up the European Player of the Year award twice in a row. This year, for the first time, the award was issued by FIFA. In the olden days, it was France Football magazine which gave out what was known as the Ballon D'or. It used to only ever go to European players. Granted some award winners such as Eusebio (Mozambique-born) and Di Stefano weren't ethnically European, but they were naturalized European citizens, Eusebio representing Portugal internationally and Di Stefano Spain. Platini has controversially proposed to return the Ballon D'or to its former "European" based dictum, but limiting the scope in this way within the demographics of European elite football, apart from anything else, would mean a player such as Messi -- who is certainly not eligible for Best Player In The Americas award -- would not be able to win anywhere.
"One is a little bit from where one is born and a lot from where one is fed" Di Stefano told me, using Argentine lunfardo slang from the streets as if he had never moved away from Parque Lezama, while at the same time acknowledging that Spain is as much home as the Río de la Plata. "Now I'm more Madrileño than Porteño."
Messi, by contrast, who still is made to feel he has much to prove wearing the Argentina strip, is on a permanent quest to retain his Argentine identity. When Barcelona won the Champions League two years ago, and the players celebrated in an impromptu gathering at the Camp Nou, he was one of the very few who did not chant "Vizca Catalunya" at the crowds.
Understandable in many ways; by the time Di Stefano was "purchased" by Mr. Bernabeu he had left an impressive trail of goals and influence both back home and in Colombia. He moved to Europe as an adult, with his own wife and children, in a quest to undertake the best job possible in his market. Messi, on the other hand, joined Barcelona as a child, and his parents came with him still in the role of protectors and nurturers. He has not known another club professionally, nor another culture as an adult. So the pressure to retain his sense of national identity is greater.
Di Stefano, also, was able to play for Spain. Plenty of South American players appeal to the most tenuous of family links to European ancestry in the hope of securing a passport, but now FIFA rules say once a player has represented a country at international level (in a competitive game) he cannot subsequently represent another. Back in Di Stefano's days the ruling was less vague, and in fact many South Americans played for Italy and Spain.
Messi may have had the last word with his two goals against Real Madrid, and it's still possible he will repeat the feat in the second leg. He is remarkable, without a doubt, and very possibly the best player of his generation and the outstanding magician amid a team of excellence.
But his youth demands he be given the chance to dream and hope of further greatnesses to conquer. He will one day be an old man with many memories and possibly stadiums and stands named after him. But not just yet.