In April of last year, a curious thing happened on Irish Twitter. Leo Messi scored an astonishing goal in the final minute of a Bernabeu Clasico to hand Barcelona a 3-2 win and amid the exultation, a trend emerged: "Wonder if Eamo Dunphy is enjoying this at home!"; "Fair play to Messi recovering from his midweek savaging by Eamon Dunphy..."; "I guess Eamon Dunphy's words really put a pep in Lionel Messi's step".
Eamo had written off Messi and Barcelona days previously following their Champions League exit to Juventus, with Leo the latest to be plucked, sent through Dunphy and sluiced out as being 'in decline'. It seemed patent nonsense at the time, and Messi's majesty just days later merely accentuated it. Eamo will jest that "we are all in decline", but the entire episode seemed emblematic of Dunphy's great genius for, well, "showbiz, baby".
Questions of whether Messi can escape Eamon Dunphy's shadow have yet to take on international significance to quite the same effect as those pertaining to Messi's evading the contours of Diego Maradona, however. Ever since we have been rightly disabused of this notion that Messi must win the World Cup to be considered a great player, the narrative has shifted as to whether Leo can ever be held in the same regard in Argentina as El Diego.
On nights where Maradona positions himself as ideal fodder for TV directors, then Messi will never eclipse El Diego as the star of the show. This game perfectly encapsulated it all. Messi's goal was a triptych of perfection: touch; control; finish. Yet Messi was immediately upstaged by Maradona: exercised as Diego was into a kind of self-exorcism by crossing his arms tightly across his chest and gazing with furious intensity at the sky.
— Hussaïn R ? (@hussain_al_ali) June 26, 2018
The Beeb ran a half-time highlight reel of Maradona which showed the celebration along with his dancing pre-game with a Nigerian fan and falling asleep toward the end of the first-half. Pablo Zabaleta tried to argue that Maradona was good for Messi, that he somehow enhanced him...before trailing off into an amused, "he's so funny" reverence of Diego, unwittingly proving the point.
Maradona was the star of Argentina's second goal too, jabbing his middle fingers downward. It's unclear who he exactly he was flipping off, but a later replay showed the hapless Jorge Sampaoli pumping his fists toward the stand which seated Maradona, which perhaps clarifies things.
The BBC wore their stern, Ofcom faces after the game, with Gary Lineker saying that "Maradona is in danger of becoming a laughing stock, I'm afraid", Rio Ferdinand adding that "his career as a football player on the pitch was up there with the best, but unfortunately there are moments like this that do arrive. It is not nice to see that".
Maradona's celebrations were uproariously funny at the time, but these laughs linger uncomfortably now as a kind of complicity with the public degrading of a great man.
Ni el juego de la selección, ni la soledad de Messi, ni la falta de criterio de Sampaoli, ni el ambiente en la concentración. Lo peor que le deja este Mundial a Argentina, de largo, es ver a Maradona hacerse esto pic.twitter.com/L0CiErfLVB
— Aitor Lagunas (@aitorlagunas) June 26, 2018
There is something deeply empty at the heart of all of this, this fact that all we love about Maradona is the absurd spectacle and the worry that all Maradona loves is the absurd spectacle.
RTE , meanhile, chose not to speak about Maradona after the game with Eamon Dunphy probing a richer heart. "Look at what it means" Eamo effused.
These scenes explain why the World Cup is unlike any other. A whole nations' emotions are engaged in this. It doesn't make sense, there are more important things in life. But look at Lionel Messi. Look at the Argentinians. And look at the Nigerian fans. A nation engages with this like it does with nothing else.... It was a terrible game.
Dunphy said that the club game simply doesn't offer this visceral, implacable, feel-the-blood-squirting-through-your-veins level of....importance as he made like a Sunday Game analyst's dream and threw off the shackles of cynicism.
There was no hyperbolic criticism of Nigeria, (tonight we expected the u-turn on Victor Moses he teed up ahead of their first game) only pathos, using our own experiences under Jack Charlton in Italy and Mick McCarthy in Saipan, sorry, Korea to further hit home why this all matters.
Dunphy called this mad, maddening spectacle "benign patriotism and benign nationalism", showing that his persistent genius is not in scribbling epitaphs as often as ITV producers write cheques, but in his recurring talent for identifying what is true and what is important in a game of football.
"Messi has everything in the world...but look at him there. He is so happy. And that's priceless".
Dunphy might be wrong about everything, but he is right about the truth.
- Brian Kerr's description of Meza's first three involvements in the game as "bad, brutal and worse" was the highlight of the RTE commentary.
- Dunphy was beat-for-beat perfect post-game, to the point where he correctly cut through the tangled nonsense being spouted about VAR to say that the problem isn't with the computers or the system, but the people using it.
- Darragh nailing the fact Sampaoli scarpered down the touchline at full-time showed a Billo-esque sense for the story.
- Rio Ferdinand, who has so impressed this column so far, demolished a lot of his good work with a long, pointless and half-hearted claim that the Nigerian penalty appeal that the referee waved away after review was, in fact, a penalty.
- Hugely enjoying this ongoing baiting of FIFA's lawyers by Liam Brady.
- Apres Match rating - 8/10. Huzzah!
Tweets of the Day
Sampaoli looks like Derek McGrath on 60 fags a day and a final warning from the Revenue at home.
— Malachy Clerkin (@MalachyClerkin) June 26, 2018