Messi goal served to erase image of Maradona's ghost

In the morning, a friend who scours the Internet like a sporting historian, chronicling the delicious moments of life just passed, mails me a picture. As much as we are addicted to moving film, the still image has the haunting quality of a painting. The more you look at it, the more it tells a tale.

This picture is not as evocative as the goal it captures, but it is revealing.

It tells us of Lionel Messi's lonely world. No other Argentinian is present and it is symbolic of what we expect of Messi: To be a man apart, to win a Cup on his own. For these seconds the match has been reduced to just that: Messi versus Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There are six Bosnians in the picture with Messi, which represents an even fight. It is also typical, for if you type in "Messi surrounded" on Google Images, you get a feel of his suffocating life. In every picture he's encircled by defenders and it is as if he exists within a maze from which he must escape constantly.

In the picture, the 'keeper dives but is too late. Two defenders are on the ground, illustrating the chaos Messi leaves in his wake. One might say he leaves a planet unbalanced. By now Messi has already turned and accelerated from insipid to inspired in a few strides. He kicks, the camera clicks. It captures him looking unsure: Will the ball go in? Even Messi hopes.

There is one person in the picture you can't see. He's always there at Messi's side in a Cup, a phantom he can't dribble past, a lurking ghost who taunts him. Maradona.

Sometime, somewhere, Messi must have seen another picture.

That one from 1982 of Maradona.

His back to us, the ball resting at his contemplative left foot as six Belgians - abandoning formation as they crowd together - face him in fearful anticipation. Maradona shone four years later, but that picture spoke of his arrogance and authority. It is what argentinians expect of Messi at this Cup.

In most ways, Messi can never be Maradona for Argentinians.

He's his too-polished alter ego.

Choirboy, not maverick. Quiet, not outspoken. Correct, not cunning.

Controlled, not inflammable.

But when the football begins, they find some similarity. In Guillem Ballague's book, Messi, a former Argentinian fitness trainer, Fernando Signorini, says of them: "You need to look at their DNA to see if they have the butterfly gene in their legs because they, like the butterfly, seem to have the sense of taste in their feet.

And a very good taste." Maradona likes the taste of the Cup and so far Messi has not. It is why this goal, only Messi's second in his third Cup, mattered, it's why he called it a "relief".

He has sufficient burdens - of vomiting due to stress, of stuttering form, of booing fans - and to not score would be further wounding.

Nations can afford limp first matches, but Messi cannot.

The goal also mattered in its design because it wasn't an opportunistic rebound, but quick and intricate, fast feet and feinting shoulder, dart and dribble, and thus not just a goal but a statement. Telling us that through 94 subdued minutes, he needed only four seconds to tilt a match. He's reminding us he is still Messi.

The goal matters only till June 21, against Iran, when he must score again and, to win this Cup, Messi must play 540 more minutes and find within them sufficient bursts of inventive seconds.

This is not a cruel life he has, it is the life he wanted.

Every goal matters. Every goal could make an impression, leave a dent in history and erase a little of the hovering ghost of Maradona.

For Messi surely that represents the most gratifying of images.

This article was first published on June 17, 2014.
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