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James Lawton: Maradona vs Messi: a score that can finally be settled at the World Cup

Even here in Augusta in the week of the Tiger you might be surprised by the amount of attention being paid to a diminutive football player.

Here, for example, is one brief snatch of bar-room conversation. "Lionel Messi, heard of him?" "Nope, who the hell is Lionel Messi?" "They say he is the best-ever soccer player."

Naturally, you are bound to offer an historical perspective, say that Barcelona's little big man is certainly not without potential but his coronation right now would be as premature as the companion proposal that his team might also be the best of all time.

It is a double negative, gentleman, because both Messi and Barça are still in the foothills of the work of a man like Diego Maradona and a team like Real Madrid.

If Messi is to surpass his compatriot he must not only carry Argentina to World Cup victory in South Africa this summer he must also virtually pick up the rest of the team and strap them to his back. That's pretty much what the outrageous, anarchistic Maradona did in Mexico in 1986.

Then, for a near encore Messi must take his nation to another World Cup final in Brazil four years later. Maradona did this in Italy in 1990, Argentina beating the host nation on the way, and, despite having to operate on a daily dose of pain killers and a life-style that would have sent the Tiger not to a sex addiction clinic but a rest home, almost beat Germany in the final in Rome.

In between these extraordinary feats, there was also the considerable matter of guiding Napoli to the first scudetto of their history in 1987.

The colours of Napoli were flown to the peak of Vesuvius by helicopter and portraits of Maradona adorned every street. When a woman claimed that he was the father of her son, Maradona protested that he had merely had morning coffee with the lady. Affectionately, a local newspaper ran the banner headline, "Diego makes strong coffee."

On another occasion his place at the heart of a passionate city was put a little more bluntly. "Maradona," it was said, "is a little shit. But he's our little shit."

This was in 1990 when Maradona's fierce combative spirit led an otherwise threadbare Argentina to that semi-final victory over Italy in Naples. The rest of the country went into shock and mourning but Naples, so often the butt of disdain north of the River Po, was consoled by the fighting-cock ferocity and defiance of its adopted son.

In Mexico City four years earlier Maradona believed he could do anything he chose – a view that was largely confirmed, most spectacularly when he punched in one goal against England, then scored another that will surely always stand as the best ever seen in a World Cup. He also brought one of Mexico City's best restaurants entirely to its feet when he strutted in through the front door.

In the final the West Germans gave the estimable Lothar Matthäus a man-marking role, something he accomplished almost flawlessly in a 2-2 deadlock. Maradona, though, won one moment of freedom and the contest was over, terminated by a pass that cut the West German defence into small pieces.

A few months ago Maradona, just out of a Fifa ban, was in South Africa to check on Argentina's World Cup training facilities. He may have been the most erratic head coach in the history of football, but his impact was startling, not least when he went to a township near Pretoria and was mobbed by youngsters born long after he ceased to play. They knew only his name – and a charisma that had plainly survived the whole decades of turmoil.

None of this in any way diminishes the beauty and the brilliance of Messi, but perhaps it does map out the terrain that he is required to cross if he is truly to step beside, and possibly beyond, his great compatriot, or Pele, the man who is generally agreed to be, in the purest terms, the best player the world will ever see.

What we are talking about, of course, is the difference between all the promise in the world and the high ground of unforgettable achievement. Against Arsenal in the Champions League this week, Messi performed with superb skill and his fourth goal, though achieved against a team who had been forced over 180 minutes to take a sharply new and different, and less gratifying, view of themselves, spoke of mesmering skill and timing.

However, it did not relieve him of the need to match the significance of Maradona's historic achievement – or Barcelona, if they are to be hailed as the best club side ever seen, of the requirement to step further from the shadow all club teams, with the possible exception of the Milan of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Franco Baresi, have inhabited since Real Madrid so profoundly dominated the first five years of the European Cup.

No one was more dominate then than another Argentine-born superstar, Alfredo di Stefano. Those who saw him in his prime, including a young Bobby Charlton who sat in awe in the Bernabeu one night when he stripped down the resistance of a potentially great young United team, say that he was the most riveting of football sights. Everything flowed from his strength and his vision. He ran with irresistible power, he sought to dominate every phase of the game. It was leadership to which Real responded, year upon year. Around Di Stefano, other great like Ferenc Puskas and Francisco Gento reached astonishing levels of effectiveness.

For the beautifully talented Messi and Barcelona this is the supreme challenge, one which both player and team have embraced so brilliantly in the last few days. However, they should not really have to be told how much ground they still have to cover if some of the fanciest talk about them, even in the most unlikeliest places, is to gain a little genuine weight.

Messi needs to win at least one World Cup and Barça must make at least one successful defence of the Champions League. Until then, they have to remain contenders, sublime ones, but mere contenders all the same. History, after all, often has a cruel way with loose talk.

Haye will not win over America until he beats Klitschko

Dave Haye, Britain's extremely self-satisfied world heavyweight championship, should not be too surprised that his name is still some way from the lips of the American boxing cognoscenti.

The trade is not exactly in robust health on this side of the Atlantic but there is still an old principle when they come to make the fights. It is to establish in putative big names something like a real form line, a rule that, before you get the star treatment, you have to produce the odd significant victory.

Who knows, Haye may achieve such a feat when he meets one of the Klitschko boys some time later this year? In the meantime, his triumphs over Nikolai Valuev and 38-year-old John Ruiz will be seen only in Britain as the signatures of an authentic champion. Meaningless hype is like young and insubstantial wine – it doesn't travel out of its own backyard.

Week of warning for Premier League

On the face it, the Premier League's early exit from the Champions League is another catastrophe, accompanying as it does the desperate failures of monitoring and care so implicit in the Portsmouth disaster.

As long as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were a phalanx of serious challengers for the world's top club prize, there was a powerful distraction from the growing debt mountains and critical problems of ownership.

Now, at a time vital for re-assessment of goals and operating technique, the Premier League has seen its thickest smokescreen blown away.

The wind of change that did it may, who knows, may just have carried the most timely of warnings.