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“If you ask my dad, he would say Maradona” | Pablo Zabaleta weighs in on Maradona vs Messi debate

Messi is less than two months away from embarking on what is likely his final appearance at the World Cup in a bid to finally win the one trophy that defined Maradona’s career

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar less than two months away when the host nation clashes with Ecuador on 20 November at the newly-constructed Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Lionel Messi will embark on what is likely his final appearance at the World Cup in what has been a career for the ages.

Now 35 but still at the top of his game, there are few that expect the diminutive genius to have another chance at lifting the World Cup for the first time across a nineteen-year stint at the very top of the beautiful game that has included a combined 34 major trophies for club and country and seven Ballon d’Or wins.

In what has been billed by some as Messi’s best chance to win the World Cup at the head of an Argentina squad under Lionel Scaloni that finally can boast a well-balanced team with talent to spare across all areas of the park while avoiding defeat in 34 consecutive fixtures, it would be an end to an international career befitting one of the games greatest ever players.

But for many, the debate regarding whether or not Messi can call himself Argentina’s greatest son ahead of the late Diego Maradona continues, one that former Argentine international Pablo Zabaleta has weighed in on.

Zabaleta, who now works at ESPN covering La Liga after his retirement from football in 2020, offered his take on the endless debate and sides with his former teammate over the man who is largely responsible for one of Argentina’s two World Cup wins in a tournament that was infamously defined by the iconic “Hand of God” moment irrespective to Maradona’s brilliant displays in 1986.

“Football was different in the 80s or 90s. For me, Messi is slightly different than Maradona. But, I know probably, if you ask my dad, he would say Maradona was the best. Not because I play with Messi or because I am a friend of him or something like that, but I think what I have seen from Messi doing for ten, fifteen years, and he is still producing some great moments of football at the age of 35, that is, you know, Fantastic.”

And if both careers are stacked against one another side by side, Zabaleta certainly does have a point.

At the time of writing, both players featured for Argentina for seventeen years, with Maradona appearing for La Albiceleste from 1977 until 1994 while Messi made his debut in 2005 and remains active currently in 2022. But despite having the same length of service, Messi has scored nearly three times the goals for Argentina by comparison (90 to 34) in 73 appearances more than Maradona but boasts a better strike rate of 0.55 to 0.37.

Another aspect of the debate boils down to the level of players the pair have lined up alongside at the international level. Many suggest that Maradona carried Argentina to glory in 1986 despite featuring in a squad that included Daniel Passarella and Oscar Ruggeri. But Messi has plied his trade for years at the international level with a cadre of players that have ascended to the pinnacle of the game in Europe, with Javier Mascherano, Javier Zanetti, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lautaro Martínez, and Paulo Dybala all long-term national team colleagues.

Like the days of Maradona, Argentina had long deployed itself in a manner to make the mercurial ten its focus and always to its detriment as the national team continued to fall short of the mark on the World Stage, with Messi reaching the World Cup finals just once (2014) while losing out to Germany whereas Maradona did not fail at the final hour 28-years before.

But when club careers are compared, Messi owns the lay of the land, bagging 390 goals more than Maradona and achieving a strike rate of 0.81 compared to Maradona’s 0.52 while outstripping Maradona’s trophy haul by a whopping 25.

Regardless of an undeniable club career that will go down as one of the best in the history of the sport, should Messi fail to lift the World Cup in Qatar, many will still feel that he will remain in Maradona’s shadow due to an inability to lift his nation on his shoulders when it mattered most.

You decide.

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Andrew Thompson

US-based Football writer. German football guru with a wealth of experience in youth development and analysis. Data aficionado. Happily championing the notion that Americans have a knowledgeable voice in the beautiful game.

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