Will Lionel Messi win a World Cup, and surpass Diego Maradona? : La última copa/The Last Cup Lionel Messi finally gets a chance to put on Argentina's national jersey, but something is off. His time abroad has fundamentally changed the way he plays. Things get even more complicated when the Argentine soccer legend, Diego Maradona, becomes coach of Messi's 2010 World Cup team. With Messi under increasing scrutiny, the hometown crowd begins to question if he can ever get out from under Maradona's shadow.

Lionel Messi has been living in a soccer god's shadow. Will he finally surpass him?

Lionel Messi has been living in a soccer god's shadow. Will he finally surpass him?

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María Jesús Contreras for NPR
Diego Maradona back-to-back with Lionel Messi as younger versions of themselves play soccer in the background
María Jesús Contreras for NPR

We often hear that "comparison is the thief of joy." It weighs us down with expectations that are created by both ourselves and the people around us.

For Lionel Messi, stepping up to the precedent set by Argentine icon Diego Maradona proved to be one match that he's still aiming to win.

Throughout his soccer career, Maradona's nickname was "El pibe de oro" or "Golden boy," but his childhood was anything but. He grew up poor and brown in a country that favors European features, so needless to say, success didn't come easy for boys like him.

His skill made him a neighborhood legend in his town before he got the opportunity to make it big on Argentina's biggest pro team, Boca Juniors. And after a stint in Europe, he then famously led the Argentine national team to a World Cup victory in a match against West Germany in 1986.

But that final game wasn't the one that elevated him to god-like status — the quarterfinals match against England did.

The "hand of god"

They call his first goal during that famed match "the hand of god." Controversial to some, Maradona was able to score for Argentina by using a combination of his fist and head to redirect the ball. When asked by reporters about how he did it, he famously said, "A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."

Diego Maradona brandishes the World Cup won by his team after a 3-2 victory over West Germany in 1986. AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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AFP via Getty Images

Diego Maradona brandishes the World Cup won by his team after a 3-2 victory over West Germany in 1986.

AFP via Getty Images

After Maradona made his second and final goal of the game, his legacy in the world of soccer was solidified — but even soccer gods have flaws.

Living in Maradona's shadow

Maradona died in 2020, and his legacy is shadowed by drug abuse and allegations of sexual assault, which he denied. His presence however still looms over Argentina, along with the precedent he set for future stars like Messi.

As one of the greatest emerging players at the time, Messi was — and still is — compared to Maradona. Most promising players are.

Their worlds collided when Maradona returned as the head coach for Argentina's national team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Messi, who is mild-mannered (and often nervous), was now confronted with Maradona's chaotic demeanor on the field.

Argentina ended up being eliminated from the World Cup that year with a loss to Germany, ironically the country Maradona beat in the '80s to win it all. This led Messi to spiral in the locker room that day and ultimately confront the hordes of frustrated Argentines who didn't understand why he wasn't delivering what Maradona once did.

Can Messi break through the noise?

Argentina's coach Diego Maradona looks towards Lionel Messi after they lost the 2010 World Cup quarter-final match vs. Germany Daniel Garcia/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Daniel Garcia/AFP via Getty Images

Argentina's coach Diego Maradona looks towards Lionel Messi after they lost the 2010 World Cup quarter-final match vs. Germany

Daniel Garcia/AFP via Getty Images

Even Maradona became a critic of Messi years later.

In 2018, eight years after Maradona had coached Messi, he told Fox Sports, "We shouldn't deify Messi any longer. He's Messi when he plays for Barcelona. Messi is Messi when he wears that shirt, and he's another Messi with Argentina."

"He's a great player, but he's not a leader," he continued. "It's useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game."

Maradona wasn't the only one who felt this way — many other Argentines shared the sentiment. After all, Maradona and Messi were both great at their sport, but their stories couldn't be more different, despite the comparisons.

Maradona rose from the ashes and became a legend prior to his scandals, while Messi fled Argentina at a young age and returned with his Spanish style of play combined with some Latin American flair. Going back home wasn't exactly easy.

Maradona later walked back those comments at a press conference by saying, "The friendship I have with Lionel is much bigger than what all of you [journalists] can write. I'm saying Messi is the best in the world."

Even after his death, Maradona's legacy continues to loom over Messi's final World Cup prospects, and ultimately begs the question: Will Messi be able to break through all the noise, or will he succumb to it?


Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to follow the rest of Lionel's journey to soccer stardom, and read about what Lionel Messi's saga says about the meaning of "home" in Episodes 1 and 2.

Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

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