Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Can Lionel Messi be the clean-cut version of Diego Maradona?

Both went into World Cups rated the best player on the planet but one Argentina legend was dogged by scandal off the pitch as he carried his side to triumph over the Germans in 1986

Rio de Janeiro

In the build-up to the 1986 World Cup finals, Diego Maradona, it emerged years later, had been preoccupied with the unborn child – his child – that his lover Cristiana Sinagra was carrying. In his seminal biography of Maradona, The Hand of God, Jimmy Burns describes Sinagra as “perhaps the only woman Maradona had ever truly loved” and it would be fair to say that the footballer has known quite a few over the years.

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At the Argentina training camp in Mexico that summer, Maradona was informed in a phone call from his brother-in-law that Sinagra would no longer stay quiet and that she was preparing to publicise Maradona’s refusal to accept responsibility for his child. “Maradona emerged from the conversation shell-shocked,” Burns wrote, “and he wandered among his team-mates for the next two days looking drawn and tense.”

Women, drugs, alleged links with the Camorra, the Neopolitan mafia, and an illegitimate child with his mistress: such was the backdrop to arguably the greatest individual performance of all time at a World Cup finals.

Video: Profile of Lionel Messi

At least Lionel Messi, the man whose chief leisure pursuits appear to be walking his dogs and an afternoon siesta, has none of that on his mind as he approaches Sunday’s 2014 World Cup final against Germany.

Messi and Maradona, the two maestros at No 10, are the obvious comparisons when it comes to the finals of 1986 and 1990 between Argentina and West Germany and Sunday’s re-match. But flicking back through the pages of history, those two games have dimensions far beyond Sunday’s game. They were chiefly about Maradona, his triumph in 1986 and the beginning of his decline in 1990, but they also represented key moments in the history of both nations.

For Argentina in 1986 there was the reassertion of nationhood post-Falklands War, especially in the quarter-final against England and Maradona’s two famous goals. Then in 1990 West Germany emerged triumphant three months before their country’s post-Cold War reunification.

The first final, which Argentina won 3-2 after a great German comeback, was the better game, albeit without the crowning goal that many expected from Maradona. The second was a desperately dry encounter settled by Andreas Brehme’s late penalty for Germany. When Maradona wept at the end of the 1990 final, sympathy and affection for the great man of 1980s football was ebbing.

Before the 1986 finals, Maradona, then just 25, had been installed as captain by Carlos Bilardo in place of his nemesis Daniel Passarella. The older Passarella had captained the 1978 World Cup winning team and was an uncompromising dictatorial figure who despised Maradona’s disregard for team rules. Bilardo indulged Maradona, who, Burns wrote, was permitted to bring his own trainer and masseur to Mexico and was not even expected to observe the rule that all players had to be in bed by midnight. Diego Maradona scores his infamous 'Hand of God' goal against England in 1986 As good as he was, Maradona was never far from controversy

In 2011, the then new Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella went to Barcelona to tell Messi and his team-mate Javier Mascherano that he wanted the latter to give up the captaincy for the team’s No 10. Such is the regard in which Mascherano holds Messi, as do all the Argentina players, that it was Mascherano who made the phone call days later to tell Sabella that Messi had decided that, yes, he would like the captaincy.

Argentina’s victory in the final over West Germany on  29 June, 1986, was arguably one of the less remarkable finals performance from Maradona. He had scored against Italy in the group stages, and twice against England in the second round and Belgium in the semi-final. In the final it was Maradona’s 84th-minute pass, with the score at 2-2, that set Jorge Burruchaga free for the winner. Maradona was man-marked by Lothar Matthäus, so neither player, each the star of his respective side, was able to shine his brightest.

The West Germany team of 1986 tends to be forgotten in its own nation’s illustrious football history, principally because it was overtaken by the victorious 1990 side and also because, having reached eight finals, the Germans are spoiled for choice. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge scored the second of his team’s two goals but he was not fit throughout the tournament.

In 1990, it was an unloveable Argentina team that came to Italy to defend their title by any means necessary. They had two players sent off in the final. Pedro Monzon, a half-time substitute, was given a straight red 20 minutes into the second half for a bad foul on Jürgen Klinsmann. In the closing stages, with Argentina trailing to Brehme’s penalty in the 85th minute, Gustavo Dezotti was sent off for his second yellow card. Argentina already had four players suspended for the final.

Maradona had gone into the tournament as the game’s greatest player and also a huge figure in Italian football. He had won the league with Napoli in 1987 and then 1990, months before the World Cup finals. But his injury problems were getting worse. He had to wear an oversized boot on his left foot to allow for the inflammation of the ankle, shattered by Andoni Goikoetxea’s vicious tackle in 1983, that was held together by a pin. One of the mysteries of that final was why Matthäus did not take the decisive penalty. He later said that he had been wearing a new pair of boots and one of the studs had been lost. He did not trust himself to be able to take the spot-kick. As for the Germans, they tend to remember the earlier rounds, the opening victory over Yugoslavia and Matthäus’ two goals in that game, as well as the epic victories over the Netherlands and England in the knockout stages.

The 1990 group of German players, as with the boys of 1966 in England, have been venerated all the more as the years have passed without a fourth World Cup victory for the newly unified country. Matthäus is a nightly guest on a Brazilian TV World Cup discussion show, alongside Passarella on a panel of former World Cup-winning captains that includes Carlos Alberto and Fabio Cannavaro. The consensus in Germany is that Matthäus’ four divorces mean that he has to take work wherever he can.

For Messi, and this superb generation of German footballers, Sunday is the day on which they will claim their own stake in history. But 24 years on from the last finals between these two countries, the back story is not nearly as engrossing.

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