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Argentina's Lionel Messi still has one man to beat

SoccerSportsColumnFIFA World Cup
Lionel Messi might be the best player in world, but he remains No. 2 to Diego Maradona in Argentina
Argentina faces Belgium on Saturday in a World Cup quarterfinal game
Despite carrying his country this far, Messi still hears criticism that he can't win the big one

Lionel Messi is loved in Argentina. But Diego Maradona is adored.

Messi is the choir boy, the good kid who was too small to play soccer but worked hard, ate all his vegetables and became the greatest player in the world. Overlook a couple of cases of alleged tax fraud and he has been a model citizen as well as a role model.

At home they call him "the Flea."

Maradona is the bad boy, a player for whom the game came easy and hard living came even easier.

He scored three of the most memorable goals in World Cup history at the same time he was addicted to cocaine. He was kicked out of another World Cup after failing a drug test. Since retiring as a player he has suffered a heart attack, been treated for hepatitis stemming from alcohol abuse and has undergone gastric-bypass surgery to combat obesity. He has also failed to pay tens of millions of dollars in back taxes to the Italian government.

At home they call him God.

On Saturday, in Argentina's World Cup quarterfinal with Belgium, the Flea and God will draw even in one sense: The game will mark Messi's 91st with the national team, the same number Maradona played in. But there will still be one big thing that separates them: a World Cup title.

Maradona won one, in 1986, when he put together one of the greatest individual performances in tournament history, scoring five goals, most of them in an indescribably magnificent manner.

The only thing Messi has won for Argentina is an Olympic gold medal. And coming into this tournament he had played in two World Cups and scored one goal.

Hardly the stuff of immortality.

Messi has also been scorned at home because he has spent much of his life in Spain, where he has played his best soccer for club team Barcelona.

So now he's a man on a mission. He has scored four times in this tournament, carrying his team to the quarterfinals as much by will as by skill. With one more win he'll have Argentina in the semifinals for the first time in 24 years — which is to say, since the last full World Cup Maradona played in.

At 27, this probably is Messi's last, best chance to win the only title that matters in the hearts of the people in his homeland.

"I've said many times: If you win, you are extraordinary, a phenomenon. If you lose, you are useless," Argentine Coach Alejandro Sabella said. "The one who finished first did everything right and the second did everything wrong. This is a contradiction.

"People in Argentina always believe we are more than what we are. At times, this is good. At times, it is bad. It has its positive side and its negative side."

In front of Messi on Saturday will be an unbeaten Belgian team that has surrendered two goals in this tournament, one on a penalty kick and the other in extra time. It has already promised to defend Messi with a physical zone defense designed to deny him both space and hope.

"He has been outstanding so far," Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen said. "Obviously, he is their main man, but there are many others players to watch."

None of those others are chasing a legacy, though. None of those others are playing for the adoration of a country that remains infatuated with someone else.

And then there's this: In Maradona's phenomenal run to the 1986 World Cup title, he too faced Belgium in the elimination rounds, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win in the semifinals.

Messi must aspire to nothing less.

"One always expects he can do something different. So he surprises on one end and on the other he is no surprise," Sabella said. "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.

"Any team that has a player like Messi will depend on him. … He is the best player in the world."

Best in the world? Yes. His record four consecutive player-of-the-year awards prove that much.

Best of all time? He's in the conversation.

What he really wants, though, is to be Maradona. And he can't be that without three more wins.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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