What do Diego Armando Maradona and Edson Arantes do Nascimento–you may know him as Pelé-share in common? They transcended soccer and bound class together through their utter sporting excellence. They exhilarated and thrilled us. They gave us deep physical pleasure and at the peak of their prowess they reminded us all that it was all simply a game.

Pelé transformed from a skinny 5’8″  teenager, whose nifty skills up front and tears on Nilton Santos’s chest had conquered Sweden in 1958, into a more cerebral and more dynamic athlete, one who formed the lynchpin of Brazil’s starting lineup at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where he cemented his name forever in the pantheon of the gods.

He embodied, for the first time perhaps, the notion of a modern-day player, and of today’s super athletes, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He artfully brushed the ball and intelligently outmaneuvered opponents, all while being the fittest player on the field.

Then came Maradona; the genius street urchin from Argentina, who also tested and defined the boundaries of what was physically possible in the beautiful game, and, who, single-handedly, guided Argentina to World Cup glory at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, with mazy solo runs and fine finishing touches.

The other thing these two legends of soccer share in common is that exceptional talent today is often labeled as their “heirs apparent.” That goes for Pele, and it especially goes for Maradona. Every other few seasons, Diego’s footballing reincarnation seemingly pops up; he tends to be a small, quick, and attacking Argentinean midfielder with nimble dribbling skills.

First, it must be said that almost all of them don’t have personality to match Diego. No one does, for better or worse. He floats among the angels, mildly divine, but whimsical and inimitable, destructive at times–a FIFA rebel, a FIFA mascot, a coach, and, most of all, an all-round diva. His Maradona-ness, now coaching UAE side Al Fujairah, is unmatched. Then, there are the soccer skills.

Maradona, touring the world with Argentina, mesmerizing his audience at Naples. He projected how the present-day players should play and excel in a game littered with Maradona posers and sub-geniuses. To be a new ‘Next Maradona,’ you need to score over 250 league goals in over 450 games and score 34 goals for Argentina. Oh, and win a World Cup. Not many can keep up with Diego on or off the field.

With all that cultural and historical baggage, it’s perhaps nonsensical to label a player ‘the next Maradona,’ because there can never be another quite like him. To saddle a young player with that expectation is to curse them to a career of wasted potential, and it’s a curse that rarely fails. Here is a list of one-time “Next Maradonas” who, ultimately, fell short. Oh, and one candidate who somehow lived up to all the hype and more. You can probably guess who that is.

Ariel Ortega

Maradona

Ariel Ortega runs with the ball during a match between Croatia v Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger /Allsport

Oh Ariel, what have you done? One wonders. He burst on to the scene with so much aplomb and regal authority that he couldn’t be ignored. Whisper it – but he was the next Maradona, a direct descendent, the skill set and the combustive personality included. But Ortega had his demons: the alcoholism and his moments of maddening rage – remember the head-butting against Edwin van der Sar at the 1998 World Cup in France? They dogged his playing career. El Burrito floated around Europe, but never made the breakthrough everyone wanted from him.

 

Juan Roman Riquelme

Maradona

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The ultimate pass master, who was never accepted by Marcelo Bielsa. Riquelme was a throwback to the old world: not much of an athlete in today’s modern game of hustle and bustle, he played with a beguiling intelligence and grace. He was part of a dying-breed that belonged to the age of cracking black-and-white TV.  Riquelme interpreted football his own way and his passing plucked away at opponents. In 2006 he reached the semi-finals of the Champions League with a sumptuous Villareal side and the World Cup quarterfinals with Jose Pekerman.

 

Pablo Aimar

Maradona

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Who doesn’t remember the baby-face from Valencia? He was a pivot in Hector Cuper’s rampant team with John Carew feeding of Aimar’s subtle promptings.  Aimar was one of Europe’s finest attacking midfielders in the early naughties. He also galvanized Benfica during his time in Portugal. At the international level, he battled with Riquelme for the No 10 shirt. Plus, he gave us one of the most adorable soccer moments of the millennium, when a young Messi sought him out to say hello in a loving embrace after a match; Aimar was Lionel’s idol growing up.

 

Javier Saviola

Maradona

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

All too soon and too early? Javier Saviola was hyped from a very young age: He was going to take the world by storm, but it never quiet happened. The on-the-last-shoulder striker  had eternal promise, but greatness never materialized. He had spells with both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as at Monaco, Sevilla, and Benfica before returning to River Plate.

 

Carlos Tevez

Maradona

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The maverick Argentinean has ruffled a lot of feathers in his career, but he, in general, been a success at every club he has played for. Tevez, however, always struggled with the rise of Messi, who eclipsed him and took the role Tevez had always envisaged for himself, with Argentina and in club football. He has been off color in recent games in China, despite being the world’s highest-paid player at Shanghai.

Andres D'Alessandro

Maradona

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He ticked all the boxes to be Maradona’s successor: attacking midfielder, small frame, and dainty skills. He came of age at the 2001 youth World Cup, when Argentina won the tournament behind his talented feet. Maradona himself labeled D’Alessandro “The Next Maradona” after that, but D’Alessandro struggled to carve out a career path in Europe and withered away at Wolfsburg, Portsmouth, and Zaragoza before returning home.

Sergio Aguero

Agüero

Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates scoring his side’s fourth goal against Crystal Palace at Etihad Stadium on September 23, 2017. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Agüero, on form, is a player with an electrifying jolt. With a famous last-minute goal, he sealed a historic title for his club Manchester City. Agüero has matured ever since, becoming a more complete and even more dangerous striker since that famed 2012 title winner. He is faced with the concurrence of Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus at the club level, but the Argentine remains as prolific as ever. Agüero may not be in the mold of the all the greats, but he has a close relationship to Maradona: the attacker is the father to one of Maradona’s grandchildren, after a four-year relationship with the legend’s youngest daughter, Gianinna.

 

Lionel Messi

Messi

Lionel Messi looks on during a La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

And so to Lionel Messi. Is he the GOAT, an upgraded modern version on Maradona, one who has turned into the Messi-ah with his genteel game, arched on feints, sideway springs, and matrix of simple movements that keep enchanting us? Messi is the ultimate contemporary athlete, who has redefined the game.

But there is one glaring and jarring omission in his illustrious and superlative career: winning the World Cup. For all the riches and the quality of the European Champions League, the World Cup remains the pinnacle of the game. It’s the ultimate benchmark in soccer, and Messi fell short at the last World Cup as his Argentina were outclassed in the final by Germany. How Messi is remembered in the global conscience and his rank in the pantheon of soccer gods depend on his next World Cup, next summer in Russia (assuming Argentina make it, that is). Can one truly be the GOAT without winning the World Cup? Messi might have to find out in order to put Maradona in his rearview mirror.