Ossie Ardiles has an interesting theory about Lionel Messi. The ArgentineWorld Cup winner believes football should prepare itself for a masterclass of goalscoring at this World Cup from his fellow countryman, a player he reckons is the best he has ever seen. Even better, he insists, than Diego Maradona.
"At the last World Cup, he came off a brilliant season with Barcelona," Ardiles said. "Which meant he was not at his best. He was tired, maybe. Maybe he was injured. Maybe he was satisfied with what he had achieved. I don't know.
"But this season has not been a good one for his club, there have been a lot of people saying he is not the best anymore. So I think he will want to prove he is the best. And the place to do that is at the World Cup. I am expecting him to show the world what he can do."
Together with his former Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Ricky Villa, Ardiles was speaking at a gathering at the Argentine ambassador's residence in London ahead of the World Cup. For more than 90 minutes the pair held a packed audience of expatriate South Americans spellbound with their repartee. While Villa was somewhat more circumspect, Ardiles was bullish.
"No country can win the World Cup without at least one world-class player playing at his best," he said. "If you think who has world class players this time round, it is maybe only Spain, Portugal and Brazil. And maybe Germany. But it is Argentina who has the best."
Ardiles was not alone in his conviction. Around the magnificent ballroom of the grand ambassador's residence in Belgravia, there was much nodded agreement that Messi was the true heir of the man who handed the country victory the last time they won the competition in Mexico in 1986. "Definitely, in my opinion, he is better than Maradona," Ardiles said. "But to convince everyone that he is, he needs to show it in the World Cup. That is what the great players do. Diego did that. Messi has yet to do it."
He is right there. Even more than his contemporary Wayne Rooney, the World Cup has been a personal disappointment for Messi, whose personal record in the competition lags a long way behind his stellar achievements in the club game. His roll call of excellence with Barcelona is so astonishing it bears endless repetition. Top scoring in four consecutive Champions League campaigns, he holds the European record for the most goals scored in a season (73) as well as the record for the most hat-tricks. His three goals at the BernabÃ©u this season made him the leading scorer in the history of El ClÃ¡sico fixtures.
Yet in World Cup finals, this player who puts the ball in the net apparently at will in BarÃ§a red and blue, has scored just the once - and that was the final goal in a 6-0 rout of Serbia in 2006, the icing on what was already an extravagantly baked cake. That may be one more than Rooney has managed in the finals, but it is so far off his domestic aggregate it looks a thin return.
There was one man those gathered in the London outpost of Argentina blamed for this insipid showing: Maradona. In 2006, at his first World Cup, Messi was barely 18, and even less capable of dominating a game physically than he is now. A bit-part player in the group stage, he was left on the bench during the quarter final defeat to Germany.
But in 2010, he was at the height of his powers. After making himself the only serious candidate for Fifa's inaugural world player of the year award with his form for BarÃ§a, he arrived in South Africa expected to lead his country to glory. But, so the theory goes, a jealous Maradona, then the national coach, was fearful that his position as Argentina's most lauded international was under threat from the deferential youngster.
Instead of building the team around Messi, Maradona pushed him to the peripheries, deliberately squandering his principal asset by playing him out of position, in the process sabotaging his morale.
Whatever the cause, Messi went missing as Argentina once again succumbed to Germany in the quarter-final, this time by a humiliating 4-0 scoreline.
Indeed, around the ambassador's glitzy, high-ceilinged home, with its map on the wall of the Falkland Islands painted in the blue and white stripes of the Argentine flag, the South American expats seemed to fear Germany above all other threats at the forthcoming competition. "How will we ever beat them?" Ardiles was asked by one of his exasperated fellow countrymen. "Well one thing would help," came back the reply. "Get Messi to play like he can."
And this time, there will be no input from Maradona. Instead, Argentina will be managed by Alejandro Sabella, who, like Ardiles and Villa, found himself in England after the World Cup of 1978, playing for Sheffield United. As it turned out, Sabella was the Blades' second choice of young Argentines. They turned to him because, after agreeing to sign, the player the club really wanted proved a little excessive in his personal terms. His name? Diego Maradona.
"Alejandro is an excellent coach," Ardiles said. "If anyone can get the best out of Messi, it is him." A nation awaits to see if he is right.