When it comes to generational footballing talents, Argentina have had a monopoly on the very best. Diego Maradona’s recent passing at the age of 60 was greeted as if a religious leader or member of royalty had departed, such was the outbreak of grief across his native country and his adopted city, Naples.
His nickname was Dios – meaning God – which in itself is proof of his elevated status. Maradona was more than a mere footballer, but no other country other than Brazil has ever come close to.
But Argentina has more than just one player who can make a claim for the tag of the world’s best.
Three years after Maradona brought the curtain down on his spectacular but chaotic career at his beloved Boca Juniors, a 13-year old Lionel Messi was headed for Barcelona at the turn of the century. Maradona had cast a long shadow over Argentine football after his powers began to wane; any talented player would be instantly compared to El Diego.
It was human nature, but almost everyone would fail the most difficult of exams. Every player until, in 2004, Messi made his Barça debut and began to show he could pick up the mantle. A new hope in what had become a fruitless era for La Albiceleste.
Maradona’s international career ended in disgrace when he was sent home from the 1994 World Cup in the United States, a year after Argentina’s last international title, the Copa America, was won.
When Messi emerged, his integration was slow. Growth hormones taken in his early years in Cataluña complicated the start of his career. His fitness was erratic and though he was emerging as genuine ‘new Maradona’, he cut a peripheral figure at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Carlos Tevez, who months later signed for West Ham United, was Jose Pekerman’s talisman instead. The squad was talented, but couldn’t make it past the quarter finals, losing to the hosts. They performed better than in 2002 when they exited at the group stage and just as well in 2010 when, with Maradona as manager, Messi was front and centre. Although they still lost in the to Die Mannschaft again.
At France 98, there was another defeat in the last eight. It wasn’t until 2014, in Brazil, when Messi really began to assert himself internationally. Germany spoilt their party for the third time in succession, before back-to-back Copa America final losses to Chile in 2015 and 2016.
Their propensity for the role of bridesmaid has long been used as a stick to beat Messi with. Less so in Argentina itself, but by his critics, who are quick to deny his credentials as the greatest footballer of all time. While he has failed to do what Maradona did in 1986 – take Argentina to a World Cup victory almost single handedly – their troubles with tournaments not only pre-date Messi but run much deeper than him.
There has long been an issue with putting a competitive team on the pitch, specifically in relation to getting the balance right. But the discourse which often surrounds Argentine football ignores both the quality produced in-between Maradona and Messi’s respective eras and the fact that it was sufficient to have ended their barren run.
In 1998, for example, Gabriel Batistuta was among the greatest strikers in the world and indeed his reputation has long outlasted his career, which ended in 2005. Diego Simeone was best known for the incident that saw David Beckham sent off in the last 16 victory over England in that tournament, but only two years earlier, he was playing a key role in helping Atletico Madrid to a historic domestic double in Spain.
Hernan Crespo was Batistuta’s heir apparent. Both enjoyed stellar careers in Serie A, alongside Juan Sebastian Verón and Simeone, who first played for Inter before joining Crespo and Veron at Lazio. To many English supporters, the latter is the big-money flop who failed at both Manchester United and Chelsea, but he drove both Parma and Lazio to great success and was one of the most stylish and elegant midfielders around at his peak.
In 2006, Juan Roman Riquelme was at his glorious and under-appreciated best. He almost led Villarreal to the Champions League final, only to miss a last-minute penalty against Arsenal in the semis. Riquelme was at Barcelona, alongside a precociously talented Javier Saviola, who moved to Camp Nou for £15million aged just 19 in 2001, but was overshadowed and ousted by the arrival of Ronaldinho two years later.
Saviola’s build was slightly different for a typical creative midfielder, he wasn’t diminutive with a low centre of gravity, but tall, gangly and graceful. Perhaps, playing second fiddle to Ronaldinho and never reappearing for one of European football’s elite clubs again, he isn’t remembered for his ability in the mainstream the way he should be.
Attacking quality has never been in short supply, but perhaps an imbalance in the number of good defenders produced has impacted Argentina’s chances in recent tournaments. Sergio Agüero, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuaín and Mauro Icardi have all competed for a place alongside Messi over recent years. There isn’t the same strength in depth at the back and too often, managers have attempted to shoehorn as many strikers in the team as possible. Meanwhile, Messi is expected to inspire and lead in the way Maradona did, even though their situations are very different indeed.
Argentina’s relationship with Messi is much more complex than it was with Maradona. His talent is appreciated, but having played out his entire club career in Europe, resentment has been a common theme. Most people will say Maradona is the best player ever to come from the country and therefore in the history of the game, but Messi is expected to emulate him internationally. The truth is, Argentina have seen plenty of world class players come and go over the past 30 years and won nothing. Messi alone cannot change a culture of flopping on the big stage.