RIO DE JANEIRO -- The comparisons with flamboyant and outspoken legend Diego Maradona have surely become tiresome to World Cup star Lionel Messi of Argentina, but they will be intensified to a whole new decibel over the next few days.
Nearly three decades after Maradona carried Argentina on his back to the 1986 World Cup title, his quieter more humble heir, Messi, has a chance to duplicate Diego's heroics, wearing the captain's arm band against the same opponent: Germany.
If Messi can work his magic Sunday, or even play a peripheral role while drawing defenders to open up space for his teammates, he will once and for all put an end to the debate of whether he measures up to Maradona as one of the best players of all time. He certainly would equal El Diego as the best players ever to wear the sky blue and white No. 10.
The Barcelona playmaker is a four-time World Player of the Year. He has won six Spanish La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies and is the all-time Barcelona leading scorer with 354 goals in 425 matches.
He is the highest-paid player in the world at $27 million per year; and if that weren't enough, he earns $40 million in endorsements. He also happens to stand 2 inches taller than the 5-foot-5 Maradona, whose gigantic personality made him seem a more imposing figure on and off the field.
But Maradona has one thing Messi doesn't: a World Cup championship.
Messi, 27, can change that Sunday.
ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas said the Maradona-Messi comparisons will never stop because both players are Argentine, left-footed and diminutive, but if Messi wins a trophy Sunday, he "has this final box checked off," and then the only question is which icon is more beloved by the Argentine people.
Maradona probably would always win that contest because he was raised in a shantytown and spent the first six years of his career in Argentina before going to Europe whereas Messi moved to Spain as a young boy and has spent his entire professional career there, making him -- in the minds of some Argentines -- more Spanish than Argentine.
Maradona also was a renegade, a controversial headline waiting to happen, and Argentine fans always were entertained by their flawed hero. Messi is a cautious corporate spokesman.
"There's no way (Messi) can ever be Diego Maradona from a personal perspective given what Maradona has meant, the man of the people and all that kind of stuff," Lalas said. " ... But from being the best player ever to play the game, I think if Messi is going to help lead this team to the World Cup and win it, and not just win it but win it in Maracana (Stadium) in Brazil, he would have to be considered, as far as I'm concerned, the best player ever to play the game."
Messi scored just one goal in eight World Cup matches in 2006 and '10, and the question was whether he could achieve as much for his country as he did for his club team. He has taken a giant step toward proving he can here over the past few weeks. He had a goal and assist against Bosnia, a goal against Iran and two goals against Nigeria.
But he has been relatively quiet in the knockout stage, going scoreless with no assists against Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Before the game against the Dutch, Oranje coach Louis van Gaal said of Messi: "On the most important stage, he hasn't always pulled it off. He's always found it difficult to do that at international level, and he wants to change that at this tournament."
On Sunday, Messi has a chance, in front of a worldwide TV audience and 78,000 fans at Maracana, to deliver that brilliance everyone is waiting to see. Only his sport's most coveted trophy is at stake.
Brazil vs. Netherlands,
1 p.m. ESPN
Argentina vs. Germany,