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Lionel Messi isn't loved like Diego Maradona in Argentina

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27 May 2011 11:05:48

Lionel Messi isn't loved like Diego Maradona in Argentina

Share Lionel Messi steps out at Wembley on Saturday with his place among football's legends already cemented. He is the best player in the world, the man about whom pundits have run out of superlatives and the reason some of the fans paying hundreds of pounds to be at the Champions League final might feel they have a bargain. But across the Atlantic in Argentina, the excitement is not quite the same. While Messi is lauded by most of the world, his genius compared with Diego Maradona, Argentina doesn't know how to feel about a boy who has lived in Spain for the past 11 years and never played club football in his homeland. Simply a legend: Messi at the Nou Camp on Monday ahead of this weekend's European Cup final The country struggles to love a player who has never really performed for his country. Sixteen goals in 55 matches for Argentina is a far cry from his 52 goals this season. For some people, comparing him to Maradona is simply insulting. 'People here have only seen Messi on television,' says Horacio Garcia, a journalist from Argentina's main sports newspaper Ole. 'That's the difference. He's proud of being an Argentine, I'm sure, but it's as if he is a foreigner.' Maradona is still the king in Argentina and he is adored across the country. The stadium is named after him at his first club Argentinos Juniors in Buenos Aires and his 115 goals in 167 games for them earned him that. They worship Maradona at Argentinos, they still sing his name on the terraces and when you ask the fans what the ground was called before he arrived, you are greeted with blank faces. They feel the same about him across the city at Boca Juniors and in Messi's home town of Rosario at Newell's Old Boys, where he also played. You can buy everything Maradona in the Boca club shop and there is a stand named after him at Newell's, the club where Messi played his youth football. Much loved: Messi celebrates Barcelona's league triumph 'Maradona has always had a bond with the poorest people in this country,' says Eldo Gonzalez, who knows both of them from running a football bar in Rosario. 'He always tells the story of his father working his a*** off so he could play football and only having money for mate (the Argentina national drink a type of herbal tea), not food. 'And Maradona played his football here first. I remember seeing him for Argentinos Juniors. He took three touches and I was in awe. But we got to know his football and saw him get better and better. Messi appeared already being Messi - he was the finished article. And he's viewed as half Spanish, half Argentine too. 'What the people loved about Maradona was that he always loved playing for Argentina,' continues Gonzalez passionately. 'He played with a broken ankle, he fell out with the president of the association and he played anyway, he would play the day before in Europe and fly straight out and play for us the next day.' Maybe that's why when you walk down Lavalle, the main shopping street in Buenos Aires where there are more than 30 replica football shops, the owners tell you that they sell as many Maradona Argentina shirts as Messi ones. Messi's breakthroughs into professional football could not have been more different from Maradona, 6,700 miles away from his home town - in Barcelona in 2004. 'It's a shame that Lionel didn't start his career at a club here', says his first coach Oscar Lopez. 'Maradona did that at Argentinos Juniors and it gave the public a chance to fall in love with his football. But that is becoming more common. We have lots of good players now who make it without even kicking a ball in the Argentinian league.' Favourite: Maradona celebrates victory for his beloved Boca Juniors over River Plate in 1997 You would be forgiven for thinking that any lack of emotion towards Messi might be a generational one. After all, if you saw Maradona win the World Cup in 1986, you might be allowed a bit of sceptism when it comes to the new kid on the block. But the apathy does not stop with the older generation. Right in the heart of Rosario - in what should be the centre of Messi mania - is the Newell's youth training facility. Messi played on these pitches as a boy and now hundreds of wannabe footballers run around like crazy each week trying to impress their coaches. But almost no-one is wearing a Messi shirt, just one in fact when we are there. When we ask a group of 30 seven-year-olds if they know who he is, only about 70 per cent say yes. You can't imagine that happening at any English club with Wayne Rooney and you certainly couldn't imagine it happening 20 years ago with Maradona. Messi is lagging behind in the popularity stakes but because of his footballing genius, the comparisons are inevitable. There's the role just behind the strikers, there's Messi's own version of Maradona's wonder goal against England in 1986 and there is even his very own Hand Of God. Watch the split screen of Maradona v England and Messi v Getafe and the similarities are staggering. Likewise with his handball he scored in the derby against Espanyol. 'Since he went to Spain he even scored with his hand like Maradona,' says Ernesto Vecchio, Messi's former coach at Newell's. 'I think he is has already shown that he is as good as Maradona and I think he will end up being better than him. All he's missing is the World Cup and then he'll have everything Maradona had. It's just that so far the great things he has done haven't been at the World Cup like Maradona.' But the problem is that he has not been the same as Maradona in the blue and white stripes of Argentina - there were even calls for him to be dropped ahead of last year's World Cup after a series of disappointing performances. 'People don't have the same passion for Messi as they do for Maradona,' admits Vecchio. 'People seem to blame Leo for not being Maradona, mainly because he hasn't played as well for Argentina as for Barcelona. The difference is that Maradona had players around him who suited him. Leo has that at Barcelona but the Argentina team now is full of players who want to show what they can do as individuals. They don't care about the team. You can't just heap all the blame on one player.' So Messi still has some way to go to convince people back home. But a superb performance at Wembley to put an English side in their place will probably not do any harm on the other side of the Atlantic.  Jack Wilshere: United must tame Barca's pass masters... like we didMartin Keown: Give Ferdinand a roving role as Messi's Wembley minderLineker: Man United need a miracle to win Champions League final  Explore more:People: Wayne Rooney, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi Places: Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Spain, Argentina, United Kingdom, Europe


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