SAINT PETERSBURG, Russian Federation, Jun 27 – When Lionel Messi ran to the corner and sank to his knees, the enduring image of Argentina scrambling into the World Cup’s last 16 was set.
Their number 10, in the blue and white stripes, his head tilted and fingers vertical, about to be swamped moments later by adoring team-mates.
But all those cameras not positioned in Messi’s corner of the Saint Petersburg Stadium quickly turned their gaze upwards and slightly to the right.
Diego Maradona, with his arms grappling his own chest, was grimacing towards the sky, a crazed look in his eyes of ecstasy, relief and delirium.
This was the duopoly of Argentina’s 2-1 win over Nigeria on Tuesday.
Not Messi and Marcos Rojo, the scorer of the winning goal in the 86th minute, nor even Messi and Jorge Sampaoli, the team’s estranged coach.
But Messi and Maradona. On the pitch, off the pitch, present and past. One trying to win the trophy that has eluded him in an otherwise extraordinary career, the other watching on, having had his own story defined by it.
– Inspiration or distraction? –
There is no telling how the hysteria that surrounds Maradona really affects the team, whether his increasingly deranged presence is a force for inspiration, sympathy or discomfort.
But as Argentina rallied to escape Group D, one of the game’s most magical players, perhaps its greatest ever icon, was in the stands, only prevented from toppling over by two of his entourage next to him.
He sat slumped in his seat, seemingly dozing off, and then later upright, frazzled with nerves, his hands clawing his face.
When Rojo’s volley hit the net, the performance was completed by two raised middle fingers and a shouted obscene insult, the intended target apparently anyone that would look.
Broadcasters are expected to treat Maradona with more sensitivity during Saturday’s quarter-final against France. Accompanying every meaningful action with a shot of the 57-year-old perhaps made for compelling viewing, but his health cannot be taken lightly.
After the match, video emerged of him being helped into the dining area of his VIP box, seemingly unwell. Photos showed medical staff attending to him, with one appearing to take his pulse.
On Wednesday, Maradona wrote on Instagram: “I want to tell everyone that I am fine, that I am not and was not hospitalised.”
Claudio Tapia, the president of the Argentinian FA, may be wondering though if Maradona’s histrionics are detrimental to the team, and Messi, as well as himself.
– Constant comparisons –
Whenever the World Cup comes around, Messi is encircled by Maradona’s shadow.
Thirty-two years after one Argentinian striker hoisted the trophy, another is expected to do the same.
“We say that if Messi does not win the World Cup, he will not be superior to Maradona,” Tapia said, shortly after the Albiceleste arrived in Russia.
“But I believe that these are comparisons that should be left out.”
When Maradona took aim at Sergio Ramos last week, calling him inferior to Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin, the Spain defender retaliated with an insult he clearly felt would cut deep.
“In Argentina they know Maradona is light years away from the best Argentine player in history which, for me, is Lionel Messi,” Ramos said.
Between Messi and Maradona themselves, there has been nothing but reverence.
Messi has described Maradona as his “inspiration” while only this week Maradona directed a personal message to Messi, saying: “Nothing is your fault. I love you and I respect you as always.”
But for the quiet, unassuming genius of Messi, this current circus of Maradona must feel more encroaching than ever, more even than when Maradona was Argentina’s coach in 2010.
Then they were both on the same team, each on the inside, but now Maradona is the former favourite looking in.
“The Argentines’ stereotype of Argentinian is a discreet person, who does not talk too much, and that’s the big difference with Maradona. He likes to grab attention,” said Alexandre Juillard, author of ‘Insubmersible Messi’.
“In Argentina they have an expression, ‘Pecho Frio’, which means when you need to be hot, you have to be cold, and that’s Maradona’s problem.”
Argentina’s win over Nigeria may only, in the end, prolong their stay at the World Cup by a matter of days. But for as long as they are here, Maradona’s problem is Messi’s problem too.