Is Maradona a problem for Argentina?

The former great’s antics are adding to the team’s headaches.

Former Argentina star Diego Maradona waves to his fans at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Russia on Tuesday.   -  AFP

When Lionel Messi ran to the corner and sank to his knees, the enduring image of Argentina scrambling into the World Cup’s last 16 was set.

But all those cameras not positioned in Messi’s corner of the Saint Petersburg Stadium quickly turned their gaze upwards and slightly to the right.

Diego Maradona, with his arms grappling his own chest, was grimacing towards the sky, a crazed look in his eyes of ecstasy, relief and delirium.

This was the duopoly of Argentina’s 2-1 win over Nigeria on Tuesday.

Not Messi and Marcos Rojo, the scorer of the winning goal in the 86th minute, nor even Messi and Jorge Sampaoli, the team’s estranged coach.

But Messi and Maradona. On the pitch, off the pitch, present and past. One trying to win the trophy that has eluded him in an otherwise extraordinary career, the other watching on, having had his own story defined by it.

There is no telling how the hysteria that surrounds Maradona really affects the team, whether his increasingly deranged presence is a force for inspiration, sympathy or discomfort.

But as Argentina rallied to escape Group D, one of the game’s most magical players, perhaps its greatest ever icon, was in the stands, only prevented from toppling over by two of his entourage next to him.

He sat slumped in his seat, seemingly dozing off, and then later upright, frazzled with nerves, his hands clawing his face.

When Rojo’s volley hit the net, the performance was completed by two raised middle fingers and a shouted obscene insult, the intended target apparently anyone that would look.

Claudio Tapia, the president of the Argentinian FA, may be wondering though if Maradona’s histrionics are detrimental to the team, and Messi, as well as himself.

Whenever the World Cup comes around, Messi is encircled by Maradona’s shadow.

Thirty-two years after one Argentinian striker hoisted the trophy, another is expected to do the same.

“We say that if Messi does not win the World Cup, he will not be superior to Maradona,” Tapia said, shortly after the Albiceleste arrived in Russia.

“But I believe that these are comparisons that should be left out.”

Between Messi and Maradona themselves, there has been nothing but reverence.

Messi has described Maradona as his “inspiration” while only this week Maradona directed a personal message to Messi, saying: “Nothing is your fault. I love you and I respect you as always.”

But for the quiet, unassuming genius of Messi, this current circus of Maradona must feel more encroaching than ever, more even than when Maradona was Argentina’s coach in 2010.

Argentina’s win over Nigeria may only, in the end, prolong its stay at the World Cup by a matter of days. But for as long as it is here, Maradona’s problem is Messi’s problem too.

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