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Messi idolized, but Maradona has own church

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Lionel Messi was 11 years old when the Hand of God chapel went up in his hometown of Rosario.

Consecrated as Iglesia Maradoniana, the "Church of Maradona," it became a shrine to Argentina's favourite hero -- a gathering place where El Diego's works and wonders could be venerated, his outfoxing of the English and harassment by FIFA recalled and revered.

It was only ever partly tongue in cheek.

Diego Maradona's relationship with Argentina was, and is, one of mutual adoration, and in a country where football and religion are interchangeable priorities, the expression of the people's esteem for the World Cup winner was always going to take on an element of worship.

Their appreciation of Messi isn't quite so mystical, and in general the 27-year-old has yet to take on the mythical qualities of both Maradona and Brazil's Pele -- the two players typically mentioned alongside him when the greatest footballers in history are discussed and debated.

Both of them won the World Cup, and if Messi can replicate the feat on Sunday against Germany he'll at least have done his part in addressing the argument.

Outdone

But will he have outdone Maradona when goal scoring and club titles are also considered? Statistically, yes. Memorably, no.

And it's not even fair to suggest he can. Because Maradona, unlike Messi, has always been about more than just football.

As a player, the stocky, outspoken attacker was the embodiment of South American machismo and bravado. He was a radical, and the nature of his defiance exasperated the European establishment.

Ahead of the 1986 World Cup, in which he'd deliver one of the sport's most iconic moments against England, he made no bones about his desire to exact some measure of revenge for the Falklands War, in which, as he said, "a lot of Argentinean kids had died there, shot down like little birds."

And in his autobiography, whose roll-call dedication included Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet, he admitted that his "Hand of God" goal "felt a little bit like pickpocketing the English."

A rebel in football kit who could, in one moment of boldness, dribble the ball through seven or eight opponents and, in another, fire an air rifle at a crowd of reporters, Maradona inspired passion across the love-hate spectrum -- something Messi has never been able to do.

Not that he's ever been the slightest bit interested in replicating his predecessor's infamous legacy.

No, Messi is admired for being a footballer, and nothing more. His movements -- his dribbles, passes and flourishes -- are so precise as to be robotic, which strikes a certain chord with the video game generation.

His abilities, and the successes they have already produced, make him highly marketable, although his downplayed, soft-spoken public persona comes off as highly impersonal.

Messi is a one-man brand, and in that he isn't all that dissimilar from Tiger Woods, personal issues notwithstanding. As an athlete he is untouchable in his talent, but he is also unknowable in his humanity.

Sunday's match at the Maracana could well vault the Barcelona forward above Maradona in terms of accomplishment on the football pitch, but the truly great ones are also impactful, one way or another, outside the arena.

It could well be that Messi is the best footballer to have so far played the game, but greatness is about so much more than the events of 90 minutes.

On Sunday evening he might be a world champion, but Maradona will still have his church.


Spot kicks

Germany manager Joachim Loew will have surely noticed how the Netherlands were able to neutralise Messi on Wednesday. Granted, he's unlikely to assign the Argentina maestro a 90-minute shadow, although you can bet one of Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger will be tracking his movements throughout the match. An ineffective Messi is an ineffective Argentina.

On the other side of the ball, Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano will look to continue providing a reliable shield in front of the Argentina defence. The pair was able to limit Arjen Robben's touches of the ball on Wednesday, and Mascherano also marked Kevin De Bruyne out of his side's quarter-final win over Belgium.

PROJECTED GERMANY XI: Neuer; Lahm, Hummels, Boateng, Hoewedes; Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Kroos; Mueller, Klose, Oezil.

PROJECTED ARGENTINA XI: Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Perez, Biglia, Mascherano; Messi; Lavezzi, Higuain

jerradpeters@gmail.com

Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2014 C2

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