How deep Argentina goes in the World Cup will depend as much on the players around Messi as Messi himself, Argentine great Mario Kempes said Wednesday. Top players can make a difference in a game or two, he said, but it takes talent all over the field to win a championship.
"Messi is a great player, the best in the world. But he can't do it alone," Kempes, who led the Albiceleste to the World Cup title in 1978 and was awarded the Golden Ball as best player of the tournament, said through a translator. "That's why normally, on a world champion, one player stands out but you need to be surrounded by a class of players.
"That's what Maradona has to find," added Kempes, who will be working for ESPN Deportes in South Africa. "The team, the unity of that group in order to guarantee Messi can play at the level he has in Europe."
Messi led Barcelona to its second straight league title, and was the top goal scorer in both the Spanish league (34) and Europe (47). His sublime performances with the Catalan team have earned him numerous personal honors, including FIFA's player of the year award.
But it's also brought the inevitable comparisons to Diego Maradona, now his coach and one of the greatest players ever. Maradona won the World Cup as a player in 1986 and led Argentina to the 1990 final. This will be his first World Cup as the national team coach.
"No," Kempes said when asked if the comparisons are fair. "Maradona did what he had to do. Soccer's totally changed."
Despite his success at the club level, Messi has been criticized back home because he hasn't shown the same flair – or had the same results – when playing for Argentina.
Argentina was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Germany four years ago, and it struggled to lock up South America's final automatic qualifying spot for South Africa. Argentina was humiliated by Bolivia 6-1 during qualifying, and also lost 3-1 at home to archrival Brazil.
Not even Maradona, who took over 19 months ago despite no formal training as a coach, has been immune to criticism. Some have suggested Maradona should play Messi on the right side of a three-pronged attack, as he does at Barcelona.
So far, Messi has played a free role behind the two forwards for Argentina.
"Mixed. Good and bad," Kempes said when asked to evaluate his former teammate as a coach.
But Kempes said he sees signs of progress. Argentina has won all five of its friendlies this year, including a 2-1 win over 2006 semifinalist Germany and a 5-0 rout of Canada on Monday.
Argentina is expected to advance out of the group stage. In addition to Argentina and Nigeria, Group B includes Greece and South Korea.
"I feel much more comfortable and at ease because all of the (recent) games, they did play well. Not a lot of mistakes," Kempes said. "Now he'll have more time to work with the players, and we're hoping he finds the team he's looking for.
"It's a very good group," he added. "I hope the experience they have playing many years in Europe will show in the World Cup."