It's the overwhelming belief even amongst Lionel Messi's avid fans that he has so far underperformed for Argentina. They are convinced that he either hasn't given his best or hasn't been able to.
Reasons vary. Some will attribute that to the absence of Xavi and Iniesta in the Argentine squad, and some will attribute it to lack of commitment. The question is, did anyone really study Messi's performance for Argentina? And, is he indeed a smaller player when wearing the Argentine jersey?
In the beginning, let's all agree that in Leo, the world has one of the most talented players in the history of the sport. He has been unplayable most of the times in the past few years, and the recent Ballon d'Or he won actually underlines his superiority despite what others believe to be some kind of conspiracy that deprived Iniesta or Xavi from winning the award.
Why? well, the way the winner is chosen makes it clear to everyone that no conspiracy was being played in the background. It's basically the honest opinion of hundreds of national team coaches and captains along with journalists from all over the world.
It is really flattering, if you think about it. In a year when Spain won the World Cup and Inter won the treble, everybody thought that the award would go to Xavi, Iniesta or Sneijder, just like it always did.
However, the voters simply could not ignore the fact that Messi is on a different level altogether. They simply remembered that the Ballon d'Or is, after all, an individual award, and as far as individual skill is concerned Messi is simply unmatched. At least Luis Figo seems to agree with me.
This is ironically Messi's curse. He is so brilliant that people seem to be ever wanting more. He is now expected to do everything all the time and against any opponent.
For example, Cristiano Ronaldo was not crucified because of Madrid's three losses to Barcelona, or Manchester's to Barcelona in final of 2009. Meanwhile, a lot was made out of Barcelona's exit on the hands of Inter. Messi was labelled as flop. All of the above is a bit of a drift, but it gives you an idea about the hype and the expectations about the little Argentine.
If you were an Argentine football player and you want to claim a spot amongst the gods of football, then you are bound to be compared to the one and only Diego Armando Maradona, the greatest Argentine to ever grace a football field, and arguably the best footballer ever.
This is where things haven't been so fair to Lionel Messi. Maradona's greatness stems from his exploits in 1986, the year he won the World Cup with an average Argentine team. However, it also stems from his place in football pop culture. Maradona was, and still is, the Che Guevara of football.
Does anyone remember the look on Diego's face when his team lined up against England in the '86 quarterfinal? Argentina had just lost the Falkland wars to UK, and a score of Argentines were killed in the process. That match, that football battle was Maradona's revenge. It was Argentina's revenge. All the brilliance that was natural to him represented Argentina's victory over colonial England. For that, the Argentines will be forever thankful.
In comparison, Messi is a much more grounded person—humble, shy, quiet and as much as the media is concerned, boring. He will not be mentioned in the media for anything other than his exploits on the pitch. But is it fair to compare Messi's accomplishments with Argentina to those of Maradona? At least, at such a young age?
If you look at Maradona's career with Argentina, you will see that up until 1986, where he was 26 years old, Maradona only had a FIFA Youth World Cup title under his belt. In 1982, Maradona wasn't able to help Argentina to win the World Cup, or even reach the final. In comparison, Lionel Messi, who is 23 at the moment, matched Maradona for the FIFA Youth World Cup, and is a 2008 Olympic champion with Argentina. Add a runner-up of the latest Copa America, and you reach the conclusion that so far Messi actually outperformed Maradona with the national team. A very interesting conclusion.
It's a tricky business to compare two different players from two different eras, but it's definitely wrong to compare a completed career to one that is merely beginning. Lionel Messi is only 23 years old—which was Maradona's age in 1983—and barring any unexpected hiccups, he still has 10 years to give.
Only by that time one can compare Lionel Messi to Diego Maradona. But if you insist, and if you really want to go down that dangerous road, then so far Lionel Messi has definitely outperformed Maradona.