BRASILIA — For 90 or more minutes Saturday, Lionel Messi will attempt to escape the grips of Belgium’s defenders. If he and Argentina are successful and the Albiceleste advances to the World Cup semifinals for the first time in almost a quarter-century, Messi will come closer to escaping his most persistent pursuer: Diego Maradona’s shadow.
The quarterfinal match at Estadio Nacional will mark Messi’s 91st appearance in Argentina’s sky-blue outfit, equaling Maradona’s total.
In the eyes of Argentine supporters, Maradona has no equal.
Messi’s scoring totals and club trophies at FC Barcelona outpace his legendary predecessor’s career haul. But until he plays for the World Cup trophy (as Maradona did twice) or raises it (as Maradona did in 1986), Messi will remain historically upstaged.
“Maradona was a very important player in that time,” Argentina Coach Alejandro Sabella said recently, “and Messi is important as well."
In his third World Cup, Messi is playing his most important — and influential — role yet. He scored four goals in the first three matches before assisting on Angel Di Maria’s late strike against Switzerland in the round of 16.
In an Argentine campaign that has sputtered along, the little forward has stood head and shoulders above his decorated teammates.
“He has been outstanding so far,” Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen said. “Obviously, he is their main man.”
Maradona himself sounded the alarm about Argentina leaning too heavily on Messi.
“If we don’t wake up, we’re in trouble,” Maradona, 53, said on his TV show. “And the danger is that, if the kid doesn’t get the help he needs, he will end up being blamed for a catastrophe.”
Argentina’s reliance on Messi, 27, was raised again during Sabella’s news conference Friday.
“Any team that has a player like Messi will depend on him,” Sabella said. “He is the best player in the world. . . . There is a team that supports Messi, that makes him stronger, that makes him feel well. Four years ago, he was criticized. Now we say we greatly depend on Messi. It is not easy.”
Unlike Maradona, Messi has failed to manufacture as much success for his national team as for his club. In 2006, at age 19, he was underutilized by then-coach Jose Pekerman and scored once in Argentina’s quarterfinal run in Germany. Four years ago, he arrived in South Africa with soaring expectations but left without a goal as Argentina was dismissed by the Germans in the quarters.
In this year’s group stage, Messi scored what proved to be the game-winner in a 2-1 victory over Bosnia and struck from long distance in the dying moments for a 1-0 triumph against Iran. He then posted the team’s first two goals in a 3-2 victory over Nigeria.
Argentina’s problems, though, continued into the knockout stage before Messi created Di Maria’s decisive opportunity.
“We suffered and suffered, all of us,” Messi said. “We started to think it wasn’t going to happen.”
Argentina, a two-time world champion, has not ventured beyond the quarterfinals since losing to West Germany in the 1990 final, Maradona’s third World Cup. Between 1978 and ’90, Argentina reached the final three times in four tries.
Aside from the World Cup shortcomings, Messi is not held in as high regard in Argentina as Maradona in part because he is not a product of the Argentine system and never played professionally there. He did not, however, abandon his homeland; rather, he left for medical reasons.
At age 11, a growth hormone deficiency was diagnosed. His local club, Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, declined to pay for treatment. Barcelona did. The family moved to Spain. He has performed for Barca ever since, and in the past six seasons, has averaged 35 goals in league play.
Maradona came from a poor background in Buenos Aires, rose through the domestic development program and served six years in the Argentine league before excelling at Barcelona and Napoli.
Messi is the more admirable man: While Maradona’s life has been checkered by substance abuse, serious health issues and financial problems, Messi has a squeaky-clean image.
On the field, Messi trumps Maradona in accolades: four world player of the year awards, six La Liga titles and three Champions League crowns. He also has scored more goals for Argentina than Maradona (42-34).
Maradona, though, is widely regarded as the second-best player in soccer history behind Pele. His performance in the 1986 World Cup was one of the finest in tournament annals, the controversial “Hand of God” goal notwithstanding.
And Maradona continues to carry something Messi doesn’t: a World Cup title.
Messi, though, is getting closer.
Looking at the road ahead, starting with the unbeaten Belgians, Sabella said: “We have the hope, the faith, the confidence, we will move on to the next one.”
More on the World Cup: