Lionel Messi could feel the weight of Diego Maradona’s No 10 on his back. It was the final moment before kick-off in the 917th game of his career, the first without Diego, and Europe’s largest stadium stood virtually empty and entirely silent. At each end of the ground, maternity hospital on one side and cemetery on the other, a picture of Maradona was projected on the screens, in the directors’ box a man held a framed shirt, and on the pitch Barcelona’s and Osasuna’s players gathered around the centre circle where a floral offering was made, four days after his death. Among them, Messi looked at his feet, knowing there was something he had to do.
So he did. Ninety minutes later and with 18 left in the match, Messi scored the goal that gave him the opportunity to make an offering of his own. Barcelona were already three up, it wasn’t the afternoon’s best goal, not after Antoine Griezmann’s volley had almost torn the net off, and it certainly wasn’t the best of the 712 – seven hundred and twelve! – Messi has in a career which is reaching a close. But for a moment it felt like it might have been the most important, most meaningful of all. For a moment, he was taken back to where it all began, the circle completed, a legacy laid before everyone.
The ball hit the net and Messi’s team-mates came to him: first Ousmane Dembélé, then Óscar Mingueza, then the rest. He embraced them, smiled slightly, but wanted to be alone: just him and Diego. When at last he was, there was a solemnity, a simplicity to what followed, a humility that made it more heartfelt. Standing by the north end, the cemetery end, Messi pulled down the captain’s arm band and the black cloth wrapped around it. Then he took off his Barcelona shirt, untucked the shirt underneath and carefully straightened it so it could be seen: half red, half black, with Yamaha written on the front and Zanella on the back, above a No 10.
He reached to the heavens, towards God, and raised both arms. Then he crossed himself, picked up his Barcelona shirt and headed back towards the centre circle, where Antonio Mateu Lahoz was waiting with a yellow card. “Messi Cuccittini, Lionel Andres, was booked for the following motive,” the referee’s official report would say, “for taking his shirt off after scoring a goal to reveal another shirt: that of Newell’s Old Boys from the 93/94 season with a No 10 on the back.”
Messi could have chosen anything, or nothing: a message, a photo, a Barcelona shirt, an Argentina flag. Instead he opted for something that expressed the connection, something that brings them together even more than all that – which at times, in fact, may have served to push them apart.
Messi has not won a World Cup, nor reached the status Maradona has, the iconography, the emotional power. Maradona did not win what Messi has at Barcelona, nor reach his status in Catalonia: just a Copa del Rey, a league cup and memories tinged with regret, what could have been but for a broken leg and a hepatitis which might not have been hepatitis. There were more goals than many recall – 38 in two seasons – and moments, like the applause from Madrid fans when he walked the ball in, cutting back on the goal line and sending Juan José sliding by like a cartoon character, clang!, into the post. But it ended with a pitch battle and defeat and a sense that it could not continue.
On some level, a tribute in a Barcelona shirt, the shirt in which Messi has eclipsed Maradona, might not have felt right. Even an Argentina shirt might not, the weight of expectation implicit in it. No one expected a Newell’s shirt but it worked better. For Messi, certainly, it was more personal, purer: his homage, not some cold choreography. One that takes him to his childhood and places him at Maradona’s feet, looking up. In the Camp Nou dressing room for a long time, there was only one picture on Messi’s locker: a painting someone had given him of his son sleeping in red and black pyjamas, dreaming, as his father had, of playing for Newell’s. Maradona actually did, even if it was only seven games.
Messi wasn’t born when Maradona played at Barcelona. He wasn’t alive when Maradona won the World Cup, either. But he was there the day Maradona came to play for his team. He was only six and he can’t remember it but he was in the ground with his dad Jorge when Maradona made his debut for Newell’s Old Boys in October 1993, scoring the winner in a friendly against Ecuadorian side Emelec. It was Maradona’s only goal for Messi’s club, but it was enough. A connection had formed that only deepened, for good and bad, and was expressed on Sunday.
Not just expressed; rediscovered. Little gems were dusted off and given new meaning by the homage, and as each layer was peeled back, each fact recalled, each new detail added, the parallels and points of contact were made even clearer. With that, Messi’s tribute became more powerful, more perfect, the symbolism deeper. Take the shirt, for example: not just a replica from the right era, Daniel Arcucci revealed in El Gráfico, but a shirt Maradona actually wore at Newell’s. Not the first – that was handed to Fidel Castro and is now in a museum in Havana – but a real one, given to him by a judge and a shirt collector called Sergio Fernández a couple of years ago. Fernández paid a fortune for it; imagine what he would pay now for a match-worn shirt played in by both Messi and Maradona.
And if Maradona hadn’t scored a goal in it, Messi now had.
If Messi has watched Maradona’s goal for Newell’s many times since, you may not have seen it at all until Sunday, when suddenly it was everywhere. In it, Maradona runs across the front of the area from right to left, avoiding opponents, and then suddenly strikes the ball back in the direction he came from, cutting across it to send a superb shot, from left to right, high into the top corner. You may also have seen the goal Messi scored against Osasuna and dedicated to Diego. If you haven’t, it goes like this: Messi runs across the front of the area from right to left, avoiding opponents, and then suddenly strikes the ball back in the direction he came from, cutting across it to send a superb shot, from left to right, high into the top corner.
It is exactly like the only one Maradona ever scored for his team, as if he had continued the Lord’s work, as if fate decided, as if this was one last tribute to Maradona. As if Messi had planned it that way, like he refused to score unless it was the perfect replica – and the absurd thing is that’s almost believable. He could actually do that. What is unthinkable is the possibility that he hadn’t scored, the tribute unshared. This after all is the man who already replicated the goal against England, and even the hand of God. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, no one paid greater homage to Maradona than Messi. On Sunday and every day.
There is just one flaw: the image has been flipped to make them look more alike. Maradona’s is actually the other way around, with the other foot, heading in the other direction. But it doesn’t matter: it remains a mirror image if not a carbon copy and even being a bit like Diego, a deity, is an impossibility. Or so everyone thought until Messi, at which point it became the expectation with which he had to live. If Maradona was omnipresent for most Argentinians, imagine for Messi in whose image he sometimes seemed to be made, in whose shadow he exists, an impossible task that he somehow, sometimes, made possible. It is quickly forgotten now, but there were many New Maradonas before Messi and none got close. Here at least, Messi exceeded him.
After the game, Messi posted the picture of himself with him arms raised alongside Maradona in the same shirt and the same pose. Yet there is a photo, unplanned, that captures it better, better than words: one that is destined to become perhaps the iconic image to honour the greatest icon of all. It is a portrait of a reincarnation, a legacy passed on, a promise made. Messi dresses like Maradona, gestures like Maradona but as he pulls his Barcelona shirt on again cameras catch the moment from the back, like a superhero getting changed only this time they’re both superheroes. In the picture, the two 10s are laid over each other, perfectly aligned as one, Messi’s Barcelona shirt slowly coming down over Maradona’s Newell’s shirt until it is covered again, unseen but always there.