Messi was under the shadow of Maradona but not anymore, says former Argentina footballer

Bustia is not afraid of putting Messi ahead of even Pele and Maradona, who have been universally acknowledged as two greatest players of all time

By Rituraj Borkakoty in Doha

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Leonel Bustia, a former Argentina second-division footballer, with his Brazilian wife Junia. Photo: Rituraj Borkakoty
Leonel Bustia, a former Argentina second-division footballer, with his Brazilian wife Junia. Photo: Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Wed 14 Dec 2022, 11:32 PM

At the ripe old age of 35, when Lionel Messi launched a mazy run from the right flank with the ball glued to his magical left foot in the World Cup semi-final, the world held his collective breath.

With Josko Gvardiol, the best defender of this World Cup, shadowing him, Messi paused on the edge of the Croatian box.

The Argentine talisman then turned and ran closer to the byline before cutting in and sending a cross from his weaker right foot through the legs of the Croat defender for Javier Alvarez, who scored the third Argentine goal, sending the football-mad Argentinians at the Lusail Iconic Stadium into a state of frenzy.

It’s been 16 years since Messi first played for Argentina in a World Cup. In these 16 years, Messi has produced moments of such jaw-dropping brilliance again and again at the Champions League against some of the greatest club teams that football has ever seen.

But never in these 16 years has Messi delivered a performance as magical as the one against Croatia in a World Cup knockout game.

For a man that has suffered countless heartbreaks for Argentina, Messi is playing this World Cup with a new sense of freedom.

Regardless of the result in Sunday’s final, Messi seems to be in a frame of mind that is refreshingly different from the past.

He no longer looks burdened by the pressure of expectations from an Argentine public that still worships the late Diego Maradona, the man who almost single-handedly won them the World Cup in 1986.

When I bumped into Leonel Bustia, a former Argentina second-division footballer who played for Club Atlético Talleres, one of the oldest Argentinian clubs, he revealed why we are seeing the new Messi in an Argentina shirt.

“I think Messi is now free. It’s like he is feeling the respect from all Argentinians, he has finally gained that respect. So he is very free, he is feeling very happy on the field,” said Bustia who has travelled to Qatar for the World Cup with his Brazilian wife, Junia.

“He had a lot of pressure before, he was under the shadow of Maradona for a long time. But not anymore.”

Bustia says the Argentinian public has finally realised that Messi has always given his everything on the field for Argentina.

“With him as captain, Argentina won the Copa America last year. They beat Brazil in Brazil in the final. Messi was amazing in that tournament, he gave everything for us,” Bustia said.

A former midfielder whose own career was cut short by injuries, Bustia says he has never seen a more complete footballer in all his life.

“I am 52 now and I have seen a lot of football. But I have been a fan of Messi since he was a child, since he was 15. I remember him playing for Barcelona youth team. Messi has always been a great, a unique player. He is the best player for me,” he said.

“When I first saw him play, I knew that he was a great player. Being a footballer myself, I knew he was special.”

Bustia is not afraid of putting Messi ahead of even Pele and Maradona, who have been universally acknowledged as two greatest players of all time.

“Messi is different, you can see that in every match. He is the perfect player. I have seen videos of Pele’s matches from the past. He was unique for those times, but he had some weakness, sometimes he kept the ball too long, but Messi has perfection,” Bustia said.

“He will look to pass the ball after a great dribble. So for me there is no comparison. Yes, people also compare him with Maradona. They are different, they were unique. There is no comparison.

“But Messi for me is more complete. He is a striker who scores so many goals, but he also is the perfect playmaker who can give an unbelievable pass. He can do everything. He is always surprising us.”

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Messi was often criticised for lacking the leadership qualities for Maradona. But Bustia says Messi has always been a leader with a different style.

“He is not expressive like Maradona because he is shy. He is not exuberant. But in his position, he was always the leader. His influence has always been very important,” he said.

“But yes, in this World Cup, he has been a little more expressive. I think he is in a different moment of his life. He is more mature. So he has developed his leadership, he is more complete in that role.”

Finally, this footballer-turned financial consultant revealed what he would tell Messi if he met him before Sunday’s final.

“If I get a chance to talk to Messi before the (World Cup) final, I would tell him ‘Leo, you have to be happy in the final, you don’t have to give more for us. You have already given everything for us’,” he said,

“Even if we don’t win the final, we will always be grateful to Leo for what he has done for us. I will just ask him to be happy.”


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