Lionel Messi lost another final. Lionel Messi lost another final in an Argentine jersey to be precise; enough fodder for his detractors to raise the usual rhetorical question that follows every time Argentina fails to win a major trophy: How can Lionel Messi be GOAT unless he takes the Albiceleste to a major title? (Messi's Argentina Gets Lukewarm Reception)
Does a player need to win big tournaments for their National side to be considered great?
Untrue. Zico, Johan Cruyff and George Best never won a World Cup or their Continental Championship, yet their positions as greats of the game is undisputed. In fact for a few Dutch and Manchester United fans that I know, Cruyff and Best remain the greatest footballers to have ever walked the planet respectively. (Messi Downfall Plotted by Argentine Sampaoli)
But greats is not the question, greatest is; so let's move on.
Do only World Cups and Continental Championships qualify as big tournaments?
Not quite. (Messi's Family Heckled During Copa America Final)
One of the more successful coaches in world football today, Jose Mourinho, famously said four years ago that the UEFA Champions League is 'more important' than the FIFA World Cup; Sir Alex Fergusson and Wesley Sneijder would later endorse Mourinho's view. (Messi Overtaking Maradona, Says Paolo Maldini)
In fact there is a growing belief amongst fans and football pundits across the globe that club football is the pinnacle of the game because of the higher quality of teams that can be bought and built, rather than assembled from limited pools as in the international arena.
Much like the USA Olympic team of 1992, featuring Michael Jordon and Larry Bird, and aptly title the 'Dream Team'; most top European clubs are exactly that: Dream Teams. Logically, a competition between teams made up of the best talents from across the globe trumps a tournament featuring a group of disjointed player, unaccustomed to playing alongside each other.
Despite, all the recent arguments in favour of Champions League, one can't also argue with the relevance and the reverence that a FIFA World Cup deserves. It is 'The' World Cup after all that comes once every four years. So while winning a World Cup may not be the equivalent of winning a Champions League; winning four Champions League may upstage 1 World Cup.
(Messi: Four Champions Leagues, 0 World Cup; Maradona: One World Cup, Zero Champions League/European Cup)
Messi or Maradona
Most arguments in favour of Diego Maradona as the greatest player ever almost always boil down to the 1986 FIFA World Cup (though one dare not discount his contribution for Napoli, helping the South Italian club win two Serie-A titles during the days when North Italian outfits like AC Milan and Juventus dominated.)
But a major part of El Diego's legend of 86 was also because of his scintillating performance in two games: quarter-final against England and the semi-final vs Belgium. Both games saw him score a total of four goals, three of which were breathtaking and the fourth controversial (Hand of God). The fact that one of his stand out performance came against England - a country known of its aggressive and sometimes hysterical media- only magnified the narrative.
Interestingly, the all important finals, was Maradona's quietest game. Argentina's talismanic captain was on occasions schooled by Lothar Matthaus; though he did provide the through ball that set up Burruchaga for the winner.
Contrary to popular perception, Maradona wasn't the only reason Argentina lifted Mexico 86. Coach Carlos Bilardo played a stellar role in helping the Albiceleste lift their second FIFA World Cup; if Maradona was the star on the pitch, Bilardo was the hero off it.
He visited his overseas stars such as Jorge Valdano at Real Madrid and Jorge Burruchaga at Nantes months ahead of the tournament. He would play them videos and borrow their club team-mates to rehearse set-pieces. Shifting from Argentina's football culture he evolved a revolutionary 3-5-2 formation, with a sweeper in front of two central defenders and five in the midfield. His goal was to allow Maradona all the freedom by adopting the European way of dominating the centre of the field.
True, unlike Maradona, Messi hasn't been able to scale the pinnacle of international football; but he hasn't been found wanting in the blue and white stripes either. His performances in both the 2010 and 2014 Football World Cup were noteworthy (He won the golden boot at FIFA World Cup 2014 despite losing the finals, courtesy three player of the match awards in the group stages).
Similarly, at the club level, Maradona's exploits with Napoli is pale in comparison to what Messi's achieved at Barcelona; admittedly due to a star supporting cast in Xavi and Iniesta.
And quite frankly with Rojo, Biglia, Banega, Pastore, Lavezzi, Higuain et al. by his side, doubt Messi, or any other great would ever be able to get his hands on any silverware of note.
My limited point being, that in football, like in any other team sport, an individual is nothing without a group of competent teammates. A rule that applies to both Maradona and Messi.
Even the great Zinedine Zidane- already a World Cup and Euro winner-had to switch to Real Madrid and play alongside the Galacticos to get his hands on the Champions League Trophy.
Whom do the numbers favour?
Stats - the gold standard in deciding players vs player battles are heavily tilted in favour of Messi: La Pulga has to his credit 46 international goals compared to La Diego's 34. At club level Messi has amassed 412 goals; Maradona 312.
Messi has been named World Footballer of the year four times; Maradona didn't win it even once, mainly because the award was introduced in 1991, by which time the Argentinian's powers were on the wain.
Interestingly, there are more similarities than differences between Messi and Maradona. Same nationality, height, bursts of speed, natural left-footers and penchant for scoring stunning individual goals; hell, both even have their own versions of 'hand of god' goals.
But what sets Messi apart from Maradona is the fact that he is uncorrupted by the current state of professional football: Never the one to look for fouls , instead choosing to stay on his legs unless a really nasty tackle brings him down; a rarity in this generation of 'handle with care' footballers, where theatrics is the name of the game.
Add to that his child like exuberance on the football pitch, displayed in his keenness to play every minute of every game; and the magnanimity to share goals and stage, both on and off the pitch, with his teammates.
The only blemish on Messi's otherwise spotless career is the recent tax fraud controversy, a case he's still fighting in court.
Hand of god, failing a drug test during a World Cup, Cocaine addiction: Maradona's list of misdemeanors is endless.
The football romantic in me is, and always remain a Maradona fan: He was the reason one played football as a kid in the maidans of Kolkata, wearing the number 10 jersey. But the part of my brain which is heavily influenced by my profession as a sports journalist concedes: Lionel Messi is a freak; a player unlike any other the sport has ever seen. The greatest!