Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and why the brilliance of the true greats will forever echo down the ages

Tony Evans

Is it possible to compare players between eras? The renewed interest in Diego Maradona’s career throws up the question of who was the greatest footballer in history.

Lionel Messi gets the modern vote. The Barcelona talisman has seen off Cristiano Ronaldo in the contemporary battle for primacy. He may not be able to shake off the shadow of Maradona so easily.

Messi and Ronaldo have recoded statistics that are mindboggling. They have operated in the age of the superclub, where competition has become increasingly skewed in favour of a small number of teams. Their supporting casts have, in general, been of the highest quality. Even so, the elevated levels of fitness today mean the game is quicker than ever. The most common dismissive comment about prominent players of the past is that they would be too slow for La Liga or the Premier League.

Graeme Souness disagrees. “The great players of any era would be great today,” the man who was Liverpool’s finest captain said. “There’s only ever a handful of top men. That never changes. What has changed are the pitches. They were a great leveller.”

Improvement in groundskeeping mean that the often boggy or bare playing surfaces of yesteryear are rarely seen. “You should have tried moving the ball with one or two touches on those pitches in the 1970s or 80s,” Souness continued. “You needed great technique.”

Groundsmen are no longer enthusiasts. Their work is underpinned by science. Most of the Spanish and Italian pitches that Maradona performed upon would not be considered worthy of training areas by the top clubs.

The physical condition of footballers is different in the age of Messi. Until the 21st century, many players did not maximise their fitness. Maradona – even before substance abuse consumed him while at Napoli – was anachronistically chunky. Even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Ronaldo was among the best in the world, the striker was positively cherubic in appearance. Compare the Brazilian’s physique to the sculptured body of his Portuguese namesake. The average professional knew little about fine tuning their body until relatively recently.

Bobby Moore, England’s World Cup-winning captain, justified swilling copious amounts of beer with the phrase “a car needs petrol.” In the Sixties he did not know it was the equivalent of putting diesel in an unleaded tank. Moore at his peak would still improve Manchester City’s back line, even with a severe hangover.

Souness was part of a hard-drinking squad at Anfield but became much more conscious of how he refuelled during his stint at Sampdoria. “Players are a product of their time and environment,” he said. “Everyone drank back then so you joined in. If I was playing today, I’d be listening to the nutritionists like the rest of my team-mates and eating and drinking the right things. The culture changes.” The stars of the past – possibly even Maradona – would take a much more sober approach if they were beginning the career today.

A huge difference is the levels of protection offered to the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. “The rules were very different,” Souness said. Brute force was an accepted tactic. “When we were in the dressing room we knew the opposition were saying ‘let’s put a few on their arses and see if we can knock them off.’ Try playing tippy-tappy football when that’s happening.”

The tackle from behind was still legal and strikers in particular could expect to be clattered on a regular basis without any cards being produced for the offender. Messi and Ronaldo have had more than their share of rough treatment but neither has had the misfortune to experience anything like Maradona’s encounter with Andoni Goikoetxea, the ‘Butcher of Bilbao.’ The Athletic Bilbao defender almost ended the Argentinian’s career at the Nou Camp in 1983, breaking the Barcelona forward’s ankle with an appalling lunge. Goikoetxea seemed to target Barca’s foreign players. He was already hated in Catalonia after inflicting the cruciate ligament injury on Bernd Schuster that forced the German to miss the 1982 World Cup.

Diego Maradona will forever be one of the game's greats (Getty)

The anger and resentment towards Goikoetxea boiled over in the 1984 Copa Del Rey final at the Bernabeu. Bilbao won 1-0 but after the match Barcelona settled scores in a wild free-for-all with Maradona drop-kicking one of the opposition coaches amid a frenzied melee. That was the final indignity for Barca. The Argentinian was shipped out to Napoli.

Thuggery was endemic in football and Italy was where snideness was elevated into an art form. When Maradona moved to Serie A, he was targeted repeatedly. No modern player will ever have to undergo such treatment.

The classiest performers of any era would excel in today’s game. They would embrace modern methods and adapt their fitness, technique and style to suit the requirements of the 2020s. Souness would boss Premier League midfields in the same way he dominated top-flight central areas in the 1980s. Vision, intelligence, technique and the appetite to win will never change, even if rules and conditions are sometimes unrecognisable from the past. “The question needs to be put the other way around,” Souness said. “Who today could have played in our generation?”

What carnage could Maradona have wreaked on bowling-green pitches with protective referees? He was an outlier, a man of almost peerless talent. Would Messi, one of the few players fit to be mentioned alongside him, have led that Argentina squad to win the World Cup in 1986?

It’s probably enough to say the two best players in history are Argentinian. Their brilliance will echo down the ages.

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