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Lionel Messi is great but Diego Maradona was better

He had the ability to carry teams

icon diego16 December ~ Travelling home from a recent Atalanta match my friend and I got to talking about who was the greatest player of all time. Despite the claims of Pelé and Lionel Messi – who recently broke Gerd Müller's record for goals in a calendar year and has won the last three Ballon d'Ors, with a fourth likely to come in January – among others, we agreed that the accolade had to go to Diego Maradona. We also agreed that because of his inglorious exit from the game, it has perhaps been forgotten just how good he really was.

Maradona's best years were 1984 to 1991 with Napoli. He transformed the club from perennial underachievers into one of the power houses of the Italian game at a time when Serie A was the strongest league in the world and there were no easy games. This cannot be said of Pelé's 18 years with Santos, nor can it be said of Barcelona where Messi operates in what is, frankly, an uncompetitive league.

Furthermore, Messi is surrounded by other great players, as was Pelé when he played for Brazil. Maradona was not but his charisma inspired team-mates to play above themselves. As a result Napoli won more trophies – two league titles, one Coppa Italia and one UEFA Cup – than in the rest of their history put together. At the same time he led a good but not great Argentina side to the World Cup in 1986 and a mediocre one to the final in 1990.

We are often told that when a team has an outstanding player its game is based around him. With Maradona it was the other way round. He was an unselfish team player who was as much a provider as a scorer. All this was confirmed to me when I once gave a few English lessons to his former coach at Napoli, Ottavio Bianchi, who lives in Bergamo. It was said that they did not get on at all but Bianchi had nothing but praise for Maradona the footballer.

He told me that what made him a truly great player was that he never criticised his team-mates for not being as good as him. He had a chaotic life off the field, and his career ended in ignominy, but while he was in his prime his conduct on the field was nearly always exemplary. He was also courageous and as far as I remember he never dived. Unlike Messi, but like Pelé, Maradona played in an era when defenders were given more licence than they are today, and it is amazing how he came back from the Andoni Goikoetxea tackle.



He was also unceremoniously treated in the 1982 World Cup by Claudio Gentile. Serie A was the litmus test of a player's greatness when Maradona played in it. It is not any more but even so many feel that Messi would find life there much harder there than he does in Spain and would certainly not score so frequently.

And the Hand Of God? No worse than when Geoff Hurst punched in the first of his six goals in West Ham's 8-0 win over Sunderland in 1968. He was never pilloried for it. Better to remember the second goal in that England v Argentina game.

Maradona is still worshipped in Naples, both for how he gave a depressed city hope for a short time and for his resemblance to the scugnizzo, the Neapolitan street urchin. He did not score as often as Pelé and Messi – just over a goal every two games. He did not have their apparently squeaky clean image. His life off the field was often a disaster and sometimes a disgrace. As a result his reputation has suffered. But despite everything, on the field he was the greatest. Richard Mason

Comment on 16-12-2012 18:07:34 by howlin wolf #741968
So you had the privilege to speak to Mr. Bianchi. What else did he reveal? I have always wanted to find out why he chose Napoli rather than Sheffield United or why he preferred Italy to England. He must have told you something more......unless you promised not to reveal too many details......
Comment on 16-12-2012 18:29:11 by geobra #741980
It was a long time ago - about 15 years now - so my memory is a bit hazy. I do remember that he had just been sacked as Inter coach and replaced by Hodgson, and he told me that Massimo Moratti was a confirmed xenophile, as is shown by the number of non-Italian players in his team and the foreigm coaches he has employed.

The only 'trade secret' he revealed was that a week after Napoli won the 1987 scudetto, he begged them to do all they could to win at Ascoli, who needed a point to stay up. But in the best, or worst, Italian tradition the game finished 1-1.

In public Bianchi comes over as a dour and humourless individual. In private he was a very pleasant man with a nice sense of humour. He was also extremely complimentary about my knowledge of football!

As an English student, he was hopeless, and the lessons revolved mostly around football, especially as he was always taking phone calls from his myriad contacts in the game.

Sheffield United? Why he didn't go there was never discussed!! Sorry!
Comment on 17-12-2012 12:25:10 by Diable Rouge #742094
In many respects, cross-generational comparisons are odious, as no-one under 30 can comment on Maradona, nor anyone under 50 on Pelé, but certainly, in terms of skills and club honours, Messi has already matched either. Of course, the major deficit accruing is at international level, so could it well prove that the grave comparative inferiority of Messi's Argentine peers ultimately prevents his recognition as an all-time great?
Comment on 17-12-2012 15:05:08 by geobra #742132
Nobody disputes that Messi is AN all-time great. The question is, is he, or will he prove to be, THE all-time great?

'Odious' is rather a strong word. Like most things in football, the article is just the expression of an opinion. And there's plenty of film of Maradona and Pele fot those too young to have seen them in the flesh to form their own opinions.

Of course I agree that football has changed since the days of Pele and Maradona. Unfortunately we cannot bring them back and compare them directly with Messi, but that doesn't mean that we can't offer a personal judgement on their relative merits.

As Messi is still playing, it is obvious that a definitive judgement on him must wait, but the article expresses what I feel at the moment.
Comment on 17-12-2012 15:56:21 by Frank Heaven #742146
A great article, that provides some much needed context to the current hype about Messi's achievements.

Diable Rouge - regarding international success, the point the author makes is that Maradona delivered the goods for Argentina DESPITE being in a very average team.

Looking at the crop Messi has played with - including the likes of Aguero, Maschereno, Tevez - they are vastly superior to Carlos Bilardo's squads in both 1986 and 1990.
Comment on 18-12-2012 08:26:06 by geobra #742296
No criticism of Messi - we are all what nature made us - but Maradona was a leader.

It may be because he is a genius and can make the difficult look easy ('I could do that' but in your heart you know you couldn't) but some of Messi's goals look like the ones that are scored in training sessions, and probably some of this is because he is up against some very porous defences. It is not normal that a player scores two or three goals so regularly that it passes almost without comment.

We may never know how good this Barcelona side is unless or until Messi has a long spell on the sidelines. (Let's hope not, though).

Equally, we may never know how good Messi really is unless or until he finds himself one day in a side where he is the only superstar, as Maradona was at Napoli and with Argentina.
Comment on 19-12-2012 18:58:46 by JimDavis #743009
Diego Maradona - the Shane Warne of football.
Comment on 20-12-2012 23:36:00 by toddashton #743517
It all depends of definitions. 'Better' would, to me, refer to a technical comparison, one which I believe Messi shades. Maradona could make the ball sing but Messi is relentlessly flawless. Of the usual suspect, I warrant only Cruyff a mention alongside these two in this respect, while there are many a notch or two below.

'Greater' encompasses an element of achievement, not necessarily in quantifiable terms. Messi already has twice the number of significant honours as Maradona but isn't single-handedly responsible for any of them. Pele enters the debate at this stage, as does Zidane, Eusebio, maybe Ronaldo (BRA) etc.
Comment on 21-12-2012 08:04:09 by geobra #743570
If Messi was 'relentlessly flawless' he would have done it for Argentina, and so far he hasn't. Maradona did. He was 26 in 1986 and Messi is now 25, so perhaps we should see what he achieves in Brazil 2014. But for the moment I would say that though it is diffcult, Messi can be kept quiet, especially when he's playing in the very top games such as Champions League semi-finals against defence-orientated teams like Inter and Chelsea. In his prime, Maradona virtually always left his mark on a game.

I might once have included Ronaldo (BRA) in a list of all-time greats, but in the end I think he fell short, partly through injury and partly through over-indulgence.

But I would add to Toddashton's list Di Stefano, Puskas and possibly Hidekuti, and maybe even Best.
Comment on 23-12-2012 00:57:58 by Valentino Mazzola #744078
To be harsh, Best is a legend from Northern Ireland, not a Northern Ireland legend. He didn't play in a great generation compared to the one before or very soon after but all the same he only won 37 caps.
Comment on 23-12-2012 00:58:47 by Valentino Mazzola #744079
The what if story comes too late in 1982, but then GB was playing for a crappy American side and Bingham wasn't interested.

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