James Lawton: Maradona's ego may be all that can stop Messi joining the immortals

The World Cup's Great Players: Will Maradona have Messi in an advanced position, will he be the radiating genius of Argentina's campaign - or will he be marginalised?
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Of all the charges of perverse spirit, if not outright madness, pressing against Diego Maradona down the years the latest of them is maybe the most shocking of all.

Inevitably it has become a raw, freakish psychodrama at the heart of the World Cup.

The indictment is that only half of him pines for the Argentina triumph that would, mere sanity suggests, even more deeply entrench his position as hero and messiah and a strange, bright light on the dark side of the national character.

The other half of Maradona, the bizarre theory says, is committed to the downfall of Lionel Messi, the only Argentine player in 24 years who has begun to threaten his coach's place in the heart of a sublimely gifted but deeply paranoid football nation.

Could it really be that among all his other demons, Maradona has one telling him that if Messi does what so many believe he can over the next few weeks and announces himself as far and away the best player in the world it might just be at the cost of the unique legend of Mexico City, 1986?

Is it that, at least subliminally, Maradona cannot accept the idea that Messi might just exceed his own performances in the Azteca Stadium and, because however great any coach is he will never command the instant affection of the streets in the way of a player of genius operating at his prime, take away some mystique, some unique affection, that has been integral to his survival?

It is something that can only be investigated out in the open, rather than behind the security fences of the leafy campus of Pretoria University where the team have set up their training camp, on Saturday in Johannesburg.

Then, Argentina open their campaign against Nigeria and provide the first opportunity to analyse how Maradona has fashioned his team to best suit – or not – the needs of his most extraordinarily gifted player. Will Maradona have Messi in a more advanced position than in previous Argentina games under his command, will he be the radiating genius of the campaign, or will he be subverted, marginalised?

In the meantime conspiracy theorists will continue to argue that there is no shortage of sinister plot lines.

The latest is that when Maradona came to pick his squad he wilfully ignored the advantages of selecting Gabriel Milito, brother of Internazionale striker Diego and Messi's Barcelona team-mate and close friend. Selecting Gabriel would have carried twin benefits.

One, his defensive qualities would surely have been useful in an area of the team that is plainly the weakest, partly because another Maradona whim deprives it of the services of Champions League winner Javier Zanetti. Two, he could have made a vital contribution to Messi's morale and composure in the long hours of waiting for the action.

Maradona shrugs away the complaint, suggesting that he is not concerned with providing psychological props for grown-up players. The coach's critics say that it is precisely the opposite of that and support their claims with other examples of Maradona undermining the confidence of a player who has never displayed in the blue-and-white of Argentina the dynamism he so frequently produces for Barcelona.

Exhibit A is a television interview given by Maradona a few months ago in which he cruelly fed the conviction of many in Argentina that Messi, for all his glorious deeds on behalf of Barcelona, has rarely touched such heights for his country, and that maybe part of the reason is that he simply doesn't care enough.

Maradona said: "I think he lacks character. Messi sometimes plays for Messi. He is so fond of himself he sometimes forgets his team-mates. He is Messi Football Club."

There was also a withering insult when Maradona tossed out the word "chupon" – a schoolyard condemnation of anyone who attempts to hog the ball.

If Maradona's life had not been so besieged by madness and excess, if a psychological study would not surely reveal a set of responses compulsively abandoned by any standard, it would be easier to say that his worst critics had been touched by their own form of insanity.

Accept the appointment of football messiah, hold the affection of your country in your hand as tightly as anyone since Eva Peron, and then sabotage the most obvious instrument of your potential success. On any profile of Maradona, this surely shoots off the screen.

Yet some of his on-the-record quotes are undoubtedly disquieting, and not the least the airy statement to reporters, "It is almost certain that he will be in my starting line-up." He also said that Javier Mascherano is more Argentine than Messi or the former chief playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, who ruled himself out of further contention by saying that it was impossible that he could work with the Maradona regime. Another jibe was that sometimes Messi appeared to be "cold of heart". We also have to add the complaint of Messi's father that his son has difficulties – and not much direction – working under the man who has shaped the limits of football ambition for generations of young Argentines.

On occasions Maradona's eyes have opened wide in outrage when the charges have been whispered in his presence. "Listen, I hope he will be as good as me in Mexico. We have the best player in the world and we will give him lots of responsibility in the tournament." Lots of responsibility is perhaps an understatement of Messi's potential – and the achievements that have already accrued at the age of 22, including the current one of being rated the world's number one player.

Fanning scepticism about Messi's ultimate commitment to Argentina are, inevitably, the circumstances of his life and his career. He was born in Argentina but, almost literally, created in Spain when Barcelona made an offer that was not forthcoming in his homeland. Barça would pay the medical bills for the course of treatment that would rectify a hormone growth deficiency. It worked perfectly in that at 5ft 7ins and as compact as a welterweight Messi is able to deliver the withering, close skills of, well, Maradona at his most devastating.

He has set no limit on his talent or his ambition, a fact underlined a year ago in Rome's Olympic Stadium when he played with a brilliant bravura to help deliver Barcelona's Champions League triumph over Manchester United. You saw the magic of Messi in Rome both on and off the field. When Barcelona arrived in their hotel on the Via Veneto, the famous boulevard, lunching and watching out for celebrities, erupted at the sight of the young, tousled superstar. Chairs were over-turned in the rush to be close.

Now Messi is plainly on the threshold of his defining achievement. It is necessary for Argentina, he says, and also himself. "I know that I have to take some necessary steps at this World Cup. I have to push myself forward to a new place. To become a legend, to become great, you also have to win the World Cup."

He does not feed the weavers of conspiracy but then nor does he give an inch in the debate over the degree of his patriotism. "I had the choice to play for Argentina or Spain so of course I chose Argentina. I love Spain and I love Barcelona but Argentina is my country and I hope everyone understands that I have always tried to give my best.

"To be honest, I do not feel I have anything to prove. There are things to achieve yes, but not to prove. I'm feeling very comfortable in the team, I am relaxed and I am myself. When I look around our squad I know that player for player no team compare with us."

It is a fact that best explains why Argentina, despite an erratic qualifying campaign which included an historic 6-1 humiliation by Boliva and widespread doubts that Maradona will steer clear of fresh calamities of judgement and behaviour, remain third favourites behind Spain and Brazil. It is the most unequivocal tribute to the enduring facility of the Argentina footballer to touch moments of fantasy and Messi is of course at the heart of the assessment.

A perspective on the dangers of putting Maradona in charge of such a natural force was once provided by his former team-mate Jorge Valdano, who said: "Maradona is someone many people want to emulate, a controversial figure, loved, hated, who still stirs great upheaval in Argentina. He has no peers inside the pitch but he has turned his life into a show and is living a personal ordeal that should never be imitated."

At least Messi is beyond that last risk. If anyone doubted it, he has provided some powerful reassurance on the way to Saturday's first hurdle. "No one wants to have a great World Cup more than me. But that's it. It is all I need to say. I have to play – and nothing else."

Nowhere in this World Cup, Maradona must surely accept in his more rational moments, is there a more promising or uplifting prospect.

Lionel Messi: Pocket genius

Argentina & Barcelona

44 caps won by Messi, scoring 13 goals.

The 22-year-old striker lasted just two minutes of his debut for Argentina, against Hungary in 2005, before being sent off for a headbutt.

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