Sat | May 27, 2017

Messi is no Maradona

Published:Friday | July 11, 2014 | 7:00 AM
Orville Higgins
Will Lionel Messi forever live in the shadows of Diego Maradona?
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By Orville Higgins

I
am almost experiencing withdrawal symptoms. By Sunday, the World Cup will be over and we will be spending the next four years rehashing what took place in this year's tournament. I have been 'carrying' Argentina from the start of the tournament, chiefly because I wanted Lionel Messi to lift the Cup and convince the naysayers that he belonged in the same company as the elite of the game. I am happy that they squeezed through to the final, but I am not giving them too much of a chance against a rampaging Germany.

This German team will not be easy to beat. They are technically the best team at the tournament by some distance. No other team strokes around the ball with such precision and ease. No other team has so many players who are comfortable on the ball, and who are so adept at manoeuvring their way out of tight spaces. No other team runs as well off the ball, and no other team has so many weapons to launch at you.

The Germans are playing with a kind of brazen confidence that makes winning the final almost an inevitability. When they mauled Brazil 7-1 earlier this week, they didn't even celebrate wildly. It was strictly business. That whipping of Brazil wasn't merely one team decimating another. It was a team sending a message that the Cup is theirs, minus the formalities of actually playing the final!

DIFFERENT MINDSET

For Argentina to stand a chance, Lionel Messi has to have a monster game, and at this stage, I'm wondering if he will be able to. One of the subplots coming into this tournament was whether he should be placed at the same level as his famous countryman, Diego Maradona. The answer to that is a resounding no.

They both have the same skill sets - roughly the same height, they are brilliant dribblers, basically left-footed, exceptional vision, clinical in front of goal, and great passers. Neither heads the ball too often. That is where the comparison stops.

Maradona operated with a different mindset. Where Lionel Messi is content to have dormant periods in a game, allowing other teammates to dictate the pace, Maradona, at his best, was not. Maradona wanted the ball, demanded it. He accepted that he was at a higher plane than his teammates and saw his job as 'follow me, and we will kill them'. Where Lionel Messi is like LeBron James, Maradona is like Michael Jordan. Maradona operated with barely controlled fury, something that is not part of Messi's make-up. Maradona seemed to see the other team as his enemies, and he was setting out to put them in their place from kick-off. Maradona, especially in 1986, approached every minute of every game as if his very life depended on winning. Where Maradona seemed to be at war, Messi is out merely to play a game of football!

For all the upsets that were happening left, right and centre during the early stages, the final is seeing two of the game's powerhouses in combat, as we should have known it would. The gods of sport will allow for the less recognised teams to jolt our hearts, and make us cheer and admire them for their giant-killing acts.

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED

The gods will allow the 'smaller' teams to provide headaches for the bookies. But when it comes to the championship decider, it is always the big boys who will be rumbling. There is a famous saying that 'small horse nuh win derby'. If I may paraphrase, small teams won't win the World Cup. It's not a tournament for the faint-hearted.

Those who say the Champions League is bigger are wrong; that's like a mock exam. The World Cup is like sitting the actual paper. The questions posed in the actual exam may be easier than the mock exam, but the pressure factor is far greater, hence a greater level of difficulty to perform. The formula is simple. The big teams have the better players; the better players have played in more big games and have developed a greater capacity for holding their nerve in critical situations; and the World Cup is as much about holding one's nerve as it is about skill.

In almost all the penalty shoot-outs between the game's elite teams and the minnows, the big teams win, for no other reason than that the players on the established team will be more calm.

So come Sunday, my heart says, Argentina, but my head says Germany. Argentina does have a chance, but Messi will have to play the way Maradona used to do. His legacy depends on it.

Orville Higgins is a sports journalist with KLAS ESPN FM. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.