Orville Higgins | Messi still behind Pele, Maradona
Lionel Messi's decision to quit international football came as a shock. He is, without question, the best footballer in this generation, but the fact that he doesn't have a meaningful global title on his resume is clearly bothering him.
Losing to Chile in the Copa America final was the straw that broke the camel's back. He has now lost three Copa America finals and one World Cup final. No other footballer since Diego Maradona possesses such immense abilities on a football field, but not winning any majors in Argentina colours will forever haunt him. The criticism he has had to live with is that he doesn't come close to replicating the form of Barcelona when he plays for Argentina.
Messi is unlucky, as he has lived in Maradona's shadow. The comparisons are inevitable. Both have very similar games. They are awesome dribblers, have brilliant vision, neither is big on heading the ball, both are 'one-left' players. They score their goals by their magic inside the box, with neither blessed with a particularly powerful shot from distance. Both wear No. 10 for Argentina, and in terms of skill sets, there is very little to separate them.
What separates them is an attitude when they are playing. Messi, when playing for Argentina, often gives the impression that the result doesn't matter. He displays sublime skills and very often plays at a level that's simply beyond everybody else, but he doesn't appear to the world as if it matters too much whether he loses or not.
It may be unfair to him, because it's not possible to perform at the levels he does without being passionate about the cause. But he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve the way Maradona did. Maradona, in Argentina colours, was a beast. He appeared to be a man possessed. When you saw him playing for Argentina in the 1980s, you could almost visualise him with a gun at the front of a battle defending his beloved Argentina against all enemies.
Messi has suffered more because of this difference than anything else. If there were no Diego Maradona, Messi wouldn't have taken this kind of flak. Somebody said to me on radio that of all the really big ballers in recent history, Messi is the only one who didn't really grow up in his homeland. I thought the caller had a point, which could explain a lot.
We all know the story of him going to the Barcelona academy in Spain as a 13-year-old, and one theory is that he doesn't have the same emotional connection to Argentina that he has for his club team. At a tender age, Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. Barcelona decided to take him in and pay for his medical treatment, something that maybe no other club would have done for a short, unimposing, shy 13-year-old. For that, he must feel eternally ungrateful.
When he plays for Barcelona, he is all business. He has been blessed with having quality players around him, but he is the director who marshalls the choir. For Argentina, he very rarely plays badly; after all, he is their all-time leading goalscorer, but he doesn't dictate terms in quite the same way. Maybe the Barcelona players make more of an effort to always make him the pivotal man, always ensuring that he gets the ball, something that doesn't always happen when he plays for his national team.
In the 1986 World Cup, I used to see Maradona taking every corner, every free kick. He insisted on being a part of everything. He knew he was more talented than his teammates and felt that as long as he has the ball, his team's chances of victory were greater. With Messi, he seems okay with being out of the game for longer spells.
The absence of an international title will hurt his legacy. I personally don't feel that a World Cup title should detract from the accolades he deserves. It is clear, though, that on the big occasions for Argentina, he doesn't quite come to the party. Four major finals for Argentina without a single goal from arguably the most devastating goalscorer in his time is not mere coincidence.
Maybe somebody should get him to wear his Barcelona shirt under his Argentina jersey if he ever decides to come back to international football. For now, Maradona and PelÈ will remain ahead of him in the pecking order.
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.