Lionel Messi Can Match Maradona Legend with Match-Winning Display vs. Belgium

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistJuly 4, 2014

Argentinian fans hold banners with portraits of soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, left, and Barcelona's soccer star Lionel Messi before the group F World Cup soccer match between Argentina and Bosnia in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, June 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

It was one of the finest displays ever witnessed in the closing stages of a World Cup. Belgium had played magnificently to reach the semi-final for the first time in their history back in 1986. With idol Enzo Scifo leading the way, the nation had plenty to be proud about. 

But to put it painfully bluntly, they had no answer to the "Cosmic Kite." Diego Maradona ripped the team apart with two wonderful goals, assuring their exit from Mexico. 

That game is not remembered quite as fervently as the last-eight clash that preceded it. Perhaps at that point, the brilliance of El Diego had become almost mundane compared to the feverish, polemic mastery with which he bested England just a few days earlier. Perhaps fans had already become saturated with the genius shown by the little wizard from the slum Villa Fiorito. 

But it is worth looking back at that match to remind ourselves just how good he was. The first goal saw Jorge Burruchaga surge in from the right wing, as he did so often and so effectively in 1986. Maradona had no right to steal in between two Belgium defenders and dink the ball into the net, putting his team ahead. But he managed it; no matter how good his talent was, one of the No. 10's defining characteristics was his heart and determination to chase a lost cause. 

The second was even better. Maradona picked up the ball 30 metres out, apparently with nowhere to go facing a well-placed defence. So he decided to go it alone. Belgium's back line was dismantled in just a handful of touches as Diego surged through, before firing across Jean-Marie Pfaff for another dazzling strike. 

A place in the final, and a subsequent victory over West Germany, was on the way. 

The two nations have not crossed paths since that sweltering afternoon in Mexico's Estadio Azteca. But just as Maradona carried that team on his shoulders as captain, Lionel Messi now has the responsibility to emulate his former coach and prove that the armband is well placed on his sleeve. 

Messi's form up to now is certainly encouraging. Four of Argentina's seven World Cup goals have emanated from his unstoppable left boot, three of which were golazos that Maradona himself would have been proud of. Messi has still not hit top gear in Brazil—neither have the Albiceleste—but four wins in four is an encouraging statistic going into a World Cup quarter-final. 

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

The Barcelona man will also have his eye on more recent history. Seeking to frustrate him in the Belgium net will be Thibaut Courtois, arguably the finest young goalkeeper in world football and a player with whom Messi has become well acquainted in the past year. 

Messi and Barcelona met Courtois' Atletico Madrid no less than six times during the 2013/14 season. The side coached by Messi's compatriot Diego Simeone proved unbeatable opposition for a team used to rolling over opponents. Five of those clashes ended in low-scoring draws, while the sixth, in no less a stage than the Champions League quarter-finals, was taken by Atletico 1-0. 

And among his 41 strikes in all competitions, Argentina's No. 10 was left with one black mark on his record. Not one of those came against Atletico's Belgian saviour. It is unfinished business for Messi that surely will not have escaped his attention; as part of the youth sparring squad sent to Brazil with the senior team, Simeone's young son Giovanni, a striking prospect for River Plate, is a living reminder of that failure. 

Messi, then, has the obligation of putting two historical precedents right. The painful drought against Courtois must come to an end; it is hard to imagine Argentina going through without at least one goal from the captain, given the deficiencies up to now of strike partner Gonzalo Higuain, the unavailability of Sergio Aguero and the uneven performances of Angel Di Maria behind him. 

But the Barcelona wizard will also have one eye on 1986. Maradona cemented his place in the hearts of the Argentine public as he delivered two killer blows to Belgium, and Messi will achieve the same if he can repeat the feat and keep the Albiceleste's dreams alive.