RIO DE JANEIRO — The comparisons with flamboyant and outspoken legend Diego Maradona have surely become tiresome to World Cup star Lionel Messi of Argentina, but they will be intensified to a whole new decibel over the next 48 hours.
Nearly three decades after Maradona carried Argentina on his back to the 1986 World Cup title, his quieter more humble heir, Messi, has a chance to duplicate Diego’s heroics, wearing the captain’s arm band against the same opponent: Germany.
If Messi can work his magic Sunday, or even play a peripheral role while drawing defenders to open up space for his teammates, he will once and for all put an end to the debate of whether he measures up to Maradona as one of the best players of all time. He certainly would equal El Diego as the best players ever to wear the sky blue and white No. 10.
The Barcelona playmaker is a four-time World Player of the Year. He has won six Spanish La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies and is the all-time Barcelona leading scorer with 354 goals in 425 matches.
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He is the highest-paid player in the world at $27 million per year; and if that weren’t enough, he earns a staggering $40 million in endorsements. He also happens to stand two inches taller than the 5-foot-5 Maradona, whose gigantic personality made him seem a more imposing figure on and off the field.
But Maradona has one thing Messi doesn’t: a World Cup championship on his résumé.
Messi, 27, can change that Sunday, and one-up Maradona by beating the Germans at Maracana Stadium, the Brazilian soccer cathedral.
“I think Lionel Messi’s legacy is already secure,” ESPN analyst Ian Darke said. “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. But I suppose in Argentina, Messi maybe needs this to just move himself alongside Diego Maradona, who almost won it single-handedly in 1986.”
Fellow ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas said the comparisons will never stop because both players are Argentine, left-footed and diminutive, but if Messi wins a trophy Sunday, he “has this final box checked off” and then the only question is which icon is more beloved by the Argentine people.
Maradona probably would always win that contest because he was raised in a shantytown and spent the first six years of his career in Argentina before going to Europe whereas Messi moved to Spain as a young boy and has spent his entire professional career there, making him — in the minds of some Argentines — more Spanish than Argentine.
Maradona also was a renegade, a controversial headline waiting to happen, and Argentine fans always were entertained by their flawed hero. Messi is a cautious corporate spokesman.
“There’s no way (Messi) 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,” Lalas said. “So from that compare and contrast, it’s never going to happen. But from being the best player ever to play the game, 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.”
RIO DE JANEIRO — After losing a bitter semifinal to Argentina in penalty kicks Wednesday, Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal wanted to do what almost every other World Cup coach was free to do after his team was eliminated from the tournament — namely, go home.
That didn’t happen, though. Instead the Netherlands will have to play Brazil, the other semifinal loser, in Saturday’s consolation game in Brasilia. And despite the name, Van Gaal finds no consolation in having to play a game to determine which is the best team not to make the final.
“This match should never be played,” Van Gaal said. “I’ve been saying this for 10 years. You shouldn’t have teams playing for third and fourth place. There is only one prize that counts, and that is being world champion.”
Van Gaal has reason on his side. The game will be the third in seven days for the Dutch — and the first two went to extra time, leaving his team exhausted. But Van Gaal said he’s also worried about his team’s mental health. The players should be celebrating making it to the semifinals, he said. But a loss Saturday would send the Dutch home with consecutive losses.
The Brazilians, meanwhile, appear to be looking forward to the game. Not only will they have an extra day of rest to prepare but they’ll also be playing in front of a home crowd, eager to erase the stain of Tuesday’s 7-1 loss to Germany, the most one-sided World Cup semifinal in history.
• Brazil great Zico said coach Luiz Felipe Scolari must be replaced if his country is to move past its disappointing World Cup performance. “We need to choose new people with new thoughts about how to play the Brazilian way,” the three-time World Cup veteran said.
• Neymar became emotional when talking about the injury that ruled him out of the World Cup, saying that if the knee to his back had been slightly more to one side he “could be in a wheelchair” right now. The Brazil striker cried as he recalled the injury, saying “God blessed” him and prevented a more serious injury.
• FIFA has rejected Luis Suarez’s appeal against his lengthy ban for biting an opponent in a World Cup match. Soccer’s international governing body said its appeals committee rejected the appeal by Suarez and the Uruguay federation in its entirety.
• Argentina winger Angel Di Maria is racing against the clock to recover from a thigh injury in time for the World Cup final against Germany. A team spokesman said Di Maria was practicing at “60 to 80 percent” at the team base in Belo Horizonte.
• The World Cup semifinals each were seen by an average of more than 12 million viewers in the U.S. on ESPN and Spanish-language Univision.
• Ray Whelan, a World Cup hospitality company director, has been declared a fugitive by Brazilian police investigating a ticket-scalping scheme.