Lionel Messi: The king without the crown; an apt summation of his international career. Fitting that the man who thus described Messi was Mario Kempes, Argentina’s original No. 10, the force behind their first World Cup title.
For Kempes, the king with the crown was always Diego Maradona, though he had his differences with him in later years. Kempes, perhaps, was the king who never wore the crown. He would often joke “I was more famous for my hair than the goals.” His long, lazy locks were envied and coveted, allied with his debonair good looks. He was a hero, though never a cult hero, more of an aloof hero, his fame never soaring to the reaches of outer space like Messi or Maradona.
Kempes would later recollect to ESPN Argentina: “The night after the final, the team went to the ceremony, we had a couple of glasses of wine, and then at about half-three we went back to our training camp to pack our clothes. I took my suitcases and headed back to my parents’ house in Rosario about 300 kilometres from Buenos.”
A week later, he returned to Valencia. He gave Argentina the first taste of a World Cup title, but didn’t stay long enough to watch the impact of his achievement on his people, then under a military junta.
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But when one discusses Messi and Maradona, their burden and legacy, their influence and impact on the consciousness of the nation, one has to bring in Kempes too. The holy trinity of Argentina’s No. 10s — the undisputed king who wore the crown, the king without the crown, and the king who never wore it.
In many ways, their shadows overlap each other’s, like the angular multiple shadows formed by floodlights at the Lusail Iconic Stadium on Sunday, where Messi would leap, for one final time, to seize the crown that has long eluded him, one that would make his career undoubtedly perfect, beyond debate, like the Sun. One last time to reach the pedestal of El Diego, El Matador.
As Kempes, and most Argentines would echo, Diego will be Diego, the greatest, the untouchable, the unmatchable, but Messi could find a space too beside him, with Kempes perhaps on the other side.
Men of their times
All three were great players — Kempes one the greatest of his time, Messi, one of the all-time greats, and Maradona, perhaps the greatest of all time. The milieus they played their game in were different. Kempes’ time coincided with the military junta in Argentina, a time of austerity and muffled unrest. The failed defence of the crown, in 1982, hardly ate up newspaper columns because Britain had defeated Argentina’s military after the latter had invaded the Falklands Islands.
When Maradona won the World Cup, Argentina was just coming out of its troubled past. And when Messi walks out to emulate them, the country is battling unemployment and inflation. Messi is detached from the politics of his country; Kempes sidestepped politics; Maradona was first oblivious and then neck-deep into it, he was a staunch Peronist life-long. But should Messi win, the political backdrop would be woven into the narrative.
But among the trio, the burden on Messi is the heaviest. That is not to say that there was no burden for Kempes or Maradona. The inclusion of Kempes in the 1978 squad, the only player in the squad to ply his trade outside the country, at Valencia, was widely criticised. In his first few games, he was erratic. And that’s when chain-smoking coach César Luis Menotti suggested Kempes to shave off his beard.
“We were heading back to our camp after that match, thinking ahead to our next assignment in Rosario, when the coach said to me: ‘Mario, why don’t you get rid of the moustache and see if your luck changes?’” Kempes shaved and his luck changed, he went on to score six goals in the next four games.
Maradona’s burden was often Maradona himself, the burden of being Maradona, the crushing weight of his own prowess, his own aura, his own skill, his own No. 10 shirt. There is a lovely story on how Maradona got the number.
Kempes himself once recollected: “I was putting on the shirt, when Diego came up and asked me, ‘Maria, can I have your shirt?’ I said ‘yes, but this might not fit you.’ But he said it was fine and I gave my entire set!”
Post 1986, it was always about Maradona trying to be Maradona.
The burden of being Messi was that he was Maradona’s heir. In any other country, barring his own and Brazil, he could have already been their greatest, his halo undimmed whether he wins a World Cup or not. But he was born in the land of Diego and Mario, and he won’t be their greatest unless he wins them the World Cup. Kempes once put that in perspective: “For Messi, the shame is that it was him who replaced Diego Maradona, and Diego, with the idolatry he has over the world, it’s very hard to put him in the shade. If Messi wants to be better than Maradona, he will not do it, unless he wins four World Cups in a row. He’s not got that title of world champion. However much he wins, whatever he wins, he’ll never be able to be compared to what Diego did.”
Perhaps, Messi would never. Perhaps, he would never care. Perhaps, all that matters to him is winning the only piece of silverware that eludes him. His El Dorado.
Barring the crown that he does have, he has collected more titles than Kempes and Maradona ever had. Seven Ballon d’ors, five Champions League and 11 league titles; more goals, assists and matches for country and club. Yet, he is not Kempes or Maradona, because he has not won the World Cup. And as long as he doesn’t, he will, in Argentina, never be on the same pedestal as Maradona or Kempes.
But Messi, like Kempes in 1978 and Maradona in 1986, has been staggeringly inspirational in this tournament, producing spontaneous moments of intoxicating magic. The two glorious assists, in the quarterfinal and semifinal, the goals in every knockout stage, the silk and steel, the rage and rebellion, Messi seems to be channeling an inner Maradona like he never had before. A tribute act to his idol, a tribute as close to the original as he could. All he missed was the tousled hair, bow-legged barrelling run. The fatalists among Argentina’s fans are fishing out coincidences. All three had missed penalties in the Round of 16 games; the team’s run to the finals had its share of controversies. In Qatar, the referees awarded Argentina soft penalties; in 1986, you know it, Hand of God and all, and in 1978, Argentina were accused of fixing their last group-stage tie with Peru (they needed four goals to advance and they racked up half a dozen).
It all adds to the allure and cult of Argentina football. Argentina likes their heroes to be flawed and imperfect; insouciant and irascible. If Messi wins the World Cup, he would be perhaps the first perfect hero of Argentine football. And that would be the unearthly burden thrust on the shoulders of Messi’s successor. But Sunday would be about the king and the elusive crown.