RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- It was 1986 and the World Cup was being played in Mexico.
Argentina has a magical little man in their lineup that could do things with the ball that hadn’t been seen since Pele in his prime.
Diego Maradona was pronounced as the best player on the planet – perhaps even the best player ever -- by his supporters.
But, there were as many detractors as supporters.
In 1982, Maradona played his first World Cup in Spain and was virtually invisible. You must win a World Cup before you can be considered the best ever.
In 1986, Maradona made it his tournament. He played every minute of every Argentina game, scoring five goals and adding five passes that led to goals.
He owned one of the most famous in World Cup history, scoring twice against England in a 2-1 quarterfinal win that included the “Hand of God” goal, a marker dubbed the greatest goal of the century.
Now, 28 years later, there’s another magical little man in Argentina’s lineup. His supporters call him the greatest player in the world, perhaps the greatest ever.
But there are as many detractors as supporters.
You must win a World Cup before you can be considered the best ever.
Lionel Messi was born a year and two days after Maradona scored those two goals against England and became a soccer icon.
Messi is already an icon to many, and Argentina is expecting him to lead its national team the same way Maradona did in 1986.
It’s an unfair amount of pressure to live with.
Messi participated in his first World Cup in 2006 as the youngest player in the nation’s history to make an appearance. In 2010, he had a solid World Cup but didn’t score goals the way he was expected to.
Argentina crashed out of the 2010 tournament in the quarterfinals. It has been a while since Argentina has made a significant push on this stage.
So 2014 falls on Messi. And with the group games done, it appears the magic man has willingly taken on the mission of making Brazil 2014 his tournament.
Maradona’s Argentina of 1986 had a lot more than Maradona.
It was interspersed throughout the lineup with world class players. Maradona merely brought everyone together.
Messi’s 2014 Argentina is a far different animal.
This is a team of solid players who would be lost without Messi. They rely on him as a fish relies on water.
So far in a magnificent soccer tournament, Argentina has hardly been magnificent, except for Messi.
He has scored four goals, all of them when it came down to him or nothing for his team. Three of those tallies carried the mark of a wizard. His best goal won Argentina a game against Iran that looked certain to be drawn.
With time running out, he took the ball across the top of the penalty area and curled a magnificent bending, spinning shot into the corner.
It was stunning.
A free kick against Nigeria in the next game was so good the Nigerian keeper merely watched it enter the net.
Messi’s performance so far in Brazil is Maradona-like. It’s Pele-like. One can’t ignore the kind of teams Pele had in support of his efforts. They were without argument some of the best teams in the world.
Messi has been criticized because his national team performances with Argentina never matched his club performances with Barcelona.
What has been astonishing about Messi is his almost assassin-like coldness in how he is handling the pressure of this World Cup.
Every opponent knows if they stop Messi, they stop Argentina. He faces defences that bracket him with two defenders, triangle him with three and, in general, never lose track of him.
But great players don’t need any more than two seconds, a yard of space, or a momentary lapse by a defence before they turn disaster into achievement.
It is difficult to imagine that a country that produced Maradona, a once-in-a-century player, somehow managed to produce the second coming.
Yes, there is still a long way to go in this tournament and Messi will be challenged again and again. He will be bullied and bounced, scythed and scissored down in an effort to control him.
Messi will still be judged on how he handles all of it and how far he leads his country regardless of his performance so far.
But, judging by the response early in this tournament, nothing is troubling him. He’s ready for whatever may happen.
Messi did it all in three group games and he’s done it not only carrying 10 other teammates on his back, but the entire nation of Argentina as well.