Since Ortega in early 90s to Messi in 2022, almost 15 Argentine players have been dubbed the "next Maradona," a title which merits a badge of exceptional footballing charisma. However, none has come so far, but Messi, who could actually conclude this search for the next Football God; and maybe begin a new search, or establish a new title. Since the day that Maradona was replaced on the field by Ortega in 1994, the search for the next Maradona had officially begun. Since after the heart wrenching fall of Ortega from that esteemed queue, almost every year, someone else has been dubbed the next Maradona, and all have failed to retain that title, except Messi, who continues to struggle to end the search for Football's next Holy Grail.
Messi's metamorphosis into his current stardom, fame, and promise, is just one step short of becoming the Football God, even the avid Argentine haters are eagerly waiting for. Messi had almost ended the search in 2014, and would have transitioned to being the new Football God, ensuring a seat beside Maradona in the Football Hall of divinity, where many others are also members in their own respect - Pele, Beckenbauer, and more. However, the Maradona pedestal remains unique. Had Messi achieved this feat in 2010, it would have been truly celestial. Messi would have acquired the right hand seat to Maradona, while the Football God himself would have scaled newer heights. But that was not to be. Now, Messi continues the struggle, while Maradona, the Football God, has left us for the afterlife; his legacy continues to bask and burn in the torrent of accolades, and criticism, for many reasons that are better remembered only as lessons to others.
This World Cup, Messi leads a balanced and most promising team to yet another endeavour to transition to divinity. The hype and promise with which Messi led La Albiceleste came to this World Cup campaign are justified. Termed as the favourites by many, Argentina's World Cup campaign should have begun with a bang. As it had almost every World Cup since 1990. But this time, Argentina's initiation of the campaign was flabbergasting, to put it mildly. The day before the Saudi-Argentina game, one sports connoisseur was saying that even Argentina's second grade team will beat the Saudis; the person is an avid Argentine hater, and a German fan.
Argentina have disappointed fans over the years at very surprising junctures of World Cup campaigns, and with teams that were just awe inspiring. Maradona himself was in the team of 1994, and then his downfall began from there. The 1998 team with Batistuta, Veron, Simeone, and Ortega came back for another campaign in 2002 with Aimar, and Crespo as the young turks of the team. Argentina disappoint both times, although termed favourites or strong title contenders both times. The same is seen with the 2006 team, with Jose Peckerman in the helm, Riquelme the key player, Messi making his debut, with feats that almost match the Football God. The team highlight a football style of goals with more than 20 passes that mesmerize. Germany happen, and all is shattered, as was in 1990, 2010, and 2014. On a different note, it is surprising why Argentine fans in Bangladesh are not still as disgruntled with Germany as they continue to be with Brazil. Since 1986, when football actually turned into a burgeoning craze for Bangladeshis, mostly due to Maradona, of course, Germany had been akin to Argentina's kryptonite. Brazil suffered in their hands too, but the fans yet fail to converge against the Germans. Hope fans of both Brazil and Argentina would see the logic of the argument. But enough digressing.
Coming back to Argentina's defeat, could this be just a fluke, like it had happened to Spain in 2010. Spain lost to Switzerland in their first match, but then went on to win the World Cup with their famous, "or infamous," tiki-taka style. Hopefully, it is the same for Argentina this time. If it is not, another heart wrenching wait for another four years is on the cards for Argentine fans.
However, there is one thing that won't change, irrespective of how Albiceleste performs in this World Cup. The search for the next Maradona would officially end; at least it should. The search for another Maradona for the team has hindered the team's progress, playing style, and player psyche over the years to a great extent. This search has gone on for such a long time that it might sound cliché to the millennials, many of whom are Argentina fans, but their reasons are different from those who witnessed the magic, influence, and presence on the field of the Great Maradona. For those who witnessed football in the late 80s and early 90s, Argentina and love for Maradona is an emotion, and the competition with others comes second, something those of only that age bracket would understand and realize. Messi likely inspires the same emotion among those who have grown up seeing him growing up to his current magnitude. Many support Argentina for Messi, as those of the earlier decade began supporting Argentina for Maradona.
Messi has been deemed the most promising next Maradona; the only one who really personifies the stature and certain traits of Maradona, thankfully not those that we don't want to talk about. Messi has held on to this title for so long that an additional layer has been created between the Football God, and the Next Maradona. And that is of becoming the next Messi, of course not at par with the God, but a milestone, an exceptional feat in its own respect.
After this World Cup, Messi would be hanging his Argentine jersey and boots for good. Whether he does so with a World Cup winning feather in his cap or not, we have to wait and see. However, the end of his national team career would also conclude the search for the next Maradona, in many respects. It is likely that the legacy of Maradona will begin to transition into Football folk gradually from here on. But it is up to Messi and the Albiceleste to decide whether this folk tale will be of only about a hero who was a champion but fate didn't allow him to finish his career on a high note, or about a hero who became a god, fell from grace, but was restored to his glory through a true successor. Hope that it is the latter!