(Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — “I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football,” Diego Maradona told the BBC in 2006, “and his name is Messi.”

Eight years later, the comparison between the two fabulous Argentine players has only picked up steam. Entering Sunday’s World Cup final, Lionel Messi hardly needs any reminder about what separates the two iconic players. Just 27, Messi has already won just about everything, from an Olympic gold medal to a variety of player of the year honors. But he hasn’t won everything.

Maradona appeared in four World Cup tournaments and was the captain in 1986 when he led Argentina to the championship over West Germany. Until Messi can match that feat – and he has a chance Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern when his Argentina team takes on Germany – many feel the comparison to one of the game’s greatest players ever is still lacking.

“Lionel Messi’s legacy is already secure,” said Ian Darke, the veteran ESPN analyst. “He’s been world player of the year four times, he’s broken all kinds of records. We know he’s a great player. I think this would just be the final gloss of paint, if you like, on a wonderful reputation. … I suppose in Argentina, Messi maybe needs this to just move himself alongside Diego Maradona, who almost won it single‑handedly in 1986.”

Argentina’s semifinal win over the Netherlands marked Messi’s 92nd cap for his country, which pushed him past Maradona for total number of appearances. But for many back in Argentina, no stat or feat will really put much distance between the two. Steven Goff did a great breakdown earlier in the tournament, but the two are both left-footed, both diminutive in stature (Maradona 5 feet 5½ inches; Messi, 5-7) and each carried an entire nation’s hopes every time he set foot on the pitch.

Maradona won the World Cup in his second tournament appearance at the age of 25 in spectacular fashion. Messi is two years older and appearing in his third World Cup. As an added bonus, he has a chance to hoist the trophy on the soil of his national team’s rival, Brazil, but Argentina fans hope he’s been saving the best for last. While Maradona scored five goals in the 1986 tournament, earning him best player honors, Messi has four in Brazil. But he has been quiet lately, failing to score in his team’s quarterfinal and semifinal matches.

Maradona was always bigger than soccer his personality and flaws endearing him to millions in Argentina. Messi left to Spain when he was 13 and is more polished, more modest.

“There’s no way he can ever be Diego Maradona from a personal perspective given what Maradona has meant, the man of the people and all that kind of stuff,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. national team player and now an EPSN analyst working this tournament in Brazil. “So from that compare and contrast, it’s never going to happen.

“I think if Messi is going to help lead this team to the World Cup and win it — and not just win it but win it in Maracana in Brazil — he would have to be considered, as far as I’m concerned, the best player ever to play the game with what he has done.”

Argentina has spent the past two decades searching for the next Maradona. It surely isn’t an easy title to carry or a simple goal to chase. As Goff pointed out in his piece, no matter the opposing team on the pitch, Messi is essentially playing against a ghost every time out.

“Once again, the incredible pressure that he’s played under — does it weigh on him?” Lalas said. “I think it does to a certain extent because it’s never going to go away. But if he has this final box checked off, it opens up a whole other wonderful world of this constant debate.”

Maybe for some, Messi can draw even with the Argentine legend on Sunday. But if they both suddenly have World Cup titles on their resume, the conversation could quickly shift. Fans all over the world might be soon asking, is it possible that Messi is now better than one of the top men to ever lace up a pair of cleats?

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