London - Neymar laid down the gauntlet with two goals in Brazil’s win on opening night. Now it’s time for Lionel Messi to step forward and become the undisputed No1 star of the 2014 World Cup, taking his place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as an all-time great.
It will be hard to escape the name of Maradona when Messi, 26, steps out into the Maracana to face Bosnia and Herzegovina on Saturday night.
Maradona won the World Cup virtually single-handed for Argentina in 1986 and became the country’s biggest idol since Eva Peron.
Messi, who left his home town of Rosario for Barcelona at 13, does not receive the same adulation from fans who loved the passion and rags-to-riches story of Maradona, even though he has scored 38 goals in 86 caps since his debut in 2005.
Named captain by coach Alex Sabella to try to inspire him to hit his best form, Messi sometimes speaks as if he is almost weighed down by talk of emulating “El Diego”.
Messi says: “It is hard not to feel honoured when important people compare you with Maradona — he’s the best there’s ever been. My message, though, is please don’t compare me with him yet. He won a World Cup for our nation, and until I’ve managed to do the same the comparisons are not something I welcome or accept.
“I know I have a responsibility, especially as captain, to the people of Argentina but I try not to let that pressure get to me. I approach every game — it doesn’t matter if it is a Champions League final or a World Cup game — as I did as a child … and that is to have fun.
“I know the importance of the World Cup but if you approach games with a smile on your face and with the intention just to have fun on the field, then you often find things look after themselves.”
It will please Messi enormously, given the pressure on his shoulders, that back in England, 1978 World Cup-winner Ossie Ardiles, who later became a team-mate and good friend of Maradona, thinks he has already proved himself as an all-time legend, regardless of what happens in Brazil.
Ardiles never thought Maradona could be equalled, saying at the time: “There is no point in anyone trying to be as good as him.”
But he now thinks Messi deserves to be classified with Pele and Maradona among the greatest of all time.
“He hasn’t won a World Cup but look what he has achieved by the age of 26; Barcelona’s all-time top scorer, three Champions Leagues, four times the World Player of the Year,” says Ardiles, now 61. “He is already there in my opinion. If he wins the World Cup, he could be at a level all on his own!
“For me, it’s a bit of myth that the people in Argentina don’t love Messi. I think if anyone from Europe goes there, they will be amazed at the affection for him.”
Ardiles won the World Cup on home soil, then secured a move to ‘Tottingham’ with pal Ricky Villa in one of the most stunning transfer deals of all time. Despite having to temporarily play his football elsewhere during the Falklands War in 1982, he stayed in England after retirement and still lives with his family in Hertfordshire. He hopes Argentina can win on enemy soil in Brazil — and believes they can.
“Argentina will have more supporters than any country except Brazil,” he says. “And when people question the Argentina defence, I don’t think it’s as bad as people say. They only conceded 15 goals in 16 qualification games (second best behind Colombia) which is good for a very tough South American group.
“Argentina qualified for this World Cup easily compared to the last one when they brought in Diego Maradona as manager and only made it in the final game. They are all good signs and in my view, while Cristiano Ronaldo is a great player, Messi is better — the best in the world right now.”
Argentina have the oldest squad in Brazil with an average age of nearly 29 and they brought Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis, 33, in from the cold after he helped his club win the Premier League. But to win the World Cup they need Messi at his best.
He sometimes seems too modest, introverted and without enough of an ego to do what Maradona did.
In the past 12 months, he lost his title of World Player of the Year to Ronaldo, and Barcelona lost La Liga. Former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson said in these pages last week this would be Messi’s last chance to dominate a World Cup. His style of leadership is to stay grounded and stress how difficult it will be for Argentina.
“There are about six or seven teams that will have a real belief they can win the World Cup,” adds Messi. “Spain have set the standard in international football over the last six years. Brazil always step up, and playing in front of their fans will give them extra incentive.”
Yet the fact Messi could shake the monkey of Maradona off his back offers all the incentive he needs.
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