The first time Diego Maradona got a good look at Lionel Messi, then 18, at a world youth championship, he liked what he saw.
“Messi is a leader and he knows the responsibility he bears,” Maradona said.
For a man not known for giving it out easily, that was something. Maradona had been pressured for years to hand off his personal standard to some other, younger Argentine. Messi became his choice.
Over the years, Maradona would be asked about Messi hundreds of times. Near the end, that opinion had evolved somewhat.
“He’s a great player, but he’s not a leader,” Maradona told FOX Sports in 2018. “It’s useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game.”
This graphic explanation of Messi’s qualities was delivered shortly after the last World Cup – another stinker for Argentina. Maradona would later walk it back, but everybody remembers that toilet line better than all the gauzy praise.
If by the end of this, Messi isn’t holding a winner’s trophy, most of Argentina will agree with Maradona. Maybe Messi was good, but not good in the way that really counts. Not Maradona good.
There are a lot of great sporting storylines here in Qatar, but Messi’s is the most final. For a decade-and-a-half, he has been the embodiment of the sport. He is beloved around the world in an uncritical way that may never be possible again. His secret? Silence. When do you ever remember hearing Messi speak?
On the rare occasions he does, he says nothing. Journalists survive on scraps he drops in paid gigs. Everyone found out this was his last World Cup when he told that to an Indian TV subsidiary of Disney – one of his many, many sponsors.
Another Messi backer? Qatar. He works with state telecom, Ooredoo. He can do double-duty on visits to the Middle East because he is also an ambassador for Saudi Arabia tourism.
But you don’t see anyone ripping Messi for his business ties. Greatness minus the need to be heard makes you a special sort of Teflon.
The greatness part of it is slipping. Messi, 35, is still better than all but a few, but nowhere close to Messi from 10 years ago. If this is his last World Cup detail, then it’s also his last chance. All that legacy building is about to take a sharp turn, off in one direction or the other.
Win here, and Messi is frozen at the top forever. There may be better players to come, but when people talk about them, they will say “Messi, Maradona, Pele” and probably in that order.
Lose, and nothing happens immediately. But it’s the beginning of a long, slow ride down to the upper-middle. Eventually, Messi’s contemporaries will be Cruyff, Best and Platini. Magical players who couldn’t win the only thing that matters.
Then eventually, you’re struck off the A-list and sent into storage with the cult heroes. How many athletes are remembered from any century? Two, three?
What’s your tightest group photo of 20th century sports? It’s Muhammad Ali, Pele and Jesse Owens. You can argue about it, but if you’re being honest, there are only a half-dozen other names that deserve consideration.
If Messi wants to be representative of the 21st century, he needs this. Without it, he’s just another great player. History – the real sort, measured in decades rather than seasons – is the private reserve of great winners.
If Messi’s feeling that pressure, it doesn’t show. Despite Maradona’s shot at him, he never shows his nerves in public. Messi was rolled out on Monday for a rare Q&A, ahead of Argentina’s opener against Saudi Arabia.
He was all easy smiles, maybe because no one ever asks him anything hard.
A representative snippet, from a Saudi reporter: “All the Arab world loves Messi, including me.”
In between, Messi said almost nothing. He seemed to walk back his promise that this was his last go (“You never know.”). Despite rumors that he’s carrying an injury, he said he’s “very well.”
People kept trying to ask him how he’s feeling, and then not believing him when he told them that he’s feeling, you know, fine.
“I’ve been working, as I have throughout my entire career,” Messi said. “It’s the last opportunity to make our dream a reality. But other than that, nothing special.”
As he left, the reporters on hand clapped. Messi flashed them a thumbs up. He even high-fived a couple of people. He loves his fans.
Maradona had the same relationship with the Argentine media, but through a glass darkly. They grew to hate him, because he hated them first. But whenever they were allowed into his presence, they could not restrain themselves. I was at one press conference where they had to put up crash barriers to prevent reporters from crowding Maradona on the stage. A few still tried.
Messi inspires fondness, rather than wild passion. He’s a technician, rather than an artist. There’s nothing flawed about him, but that has the effect of diminishing his humanity. He seems like a nice, average guy who has one remarkable gift.
He’s also become shopworn through use. It’s been almost 20 years since Messi debuted, through it feels longer. Like all players who are very good for a very long time, people have gotten used to him. They think he’ll be around forever.
But this is the last hurrah. He may win more professional trophies, but really, who cares? He already has enough of those for three legends.
What he needs is a World Cup. However sanguine he sounds, Messi must understand this is his last chance to end all doubt. He can be Maradona but lighter and Pele but newer; or he can be a soccer star whose name your grandchildren won’t recognize.