Carlos Mac Allister: ‘Messi is the greatest player in the world’

The former soccer player and politician – who once played alongside Diego Maradona – is in Qatar cheering on his youngest son, Alexis, who is playing for the Argentine National Team under Lionel Messi’s leadership

Carlos Mac Allister National Sports Secretary of Argentina
Carlos Mac Allister during a press conference in November 2016.Gabriel Rossi (LatinContent via Getty Images)
Diego Torres

Carlos Mac Allister is one of the 40,000 Argentines who have made a pilgrimage to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. The 54-year-old former defender for the Boca Juniors soccer club once played alongside the legendary Diego Maradona (1960-2020). He went on to serve as the Minister of Sport during the presidency of Mauricio Macri.

These days, Mac Allister – of Irish descent – is campaigning for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay to be chosen as the hosts for the 2030 World Cup. He is also the biggest fan of his three sons – Francis, Kevin and Alexis – who, like their father, are all professional soccer players. Alexis, his youngest, is on Argentina’s National Team and will be playing against France for the 2022 title on December 18.

Mac Allister – who is in Doha to cheer on his son – sat down with EL PAÍS to talk about a life spent in the world of soccer.

Question. Is there another family in the world whose father played with Maradona and his son with Messi?

Answer. Yes, there is one more! Giovanni Simeone. He plays alongside Lionel [Messi] and his dad played with Diego [Maradona]. But his father and I never made it to the World Cup.

Q. Alexis told us that he and you sometimes argue about whether Messi is better than Maradona…

A. No, we don’t argue. Without a doubt, Messi is the greatest soccer player in all of history. I’m a rational man – I believe in what I see. Messi’s numbers are astounding. But you have to look at the context, too. Maradona had many personal problems, unlike Messi, who today, at 35, has a better body than he did at 24.

Q. How did you first meet Maradona?

A. I played with his brother, El Turco, in the Argentinos Juniors soccer club. I was one of the players he pampered. He [Maradona] once gave me a gold Rolex.

Maradona with Carlos Mac Allister
Maradona with Carlos Mac Allister

Q. What happened to the Rolex?

A. It was stolen from me – when I was leaving the stadium one night, thieves broke my car window and pointed a gun at me… I handed it over. I think it was worth more than $5,000.

Q. Maradona didn’t score as much as he could have, because he devoted a lot of energy to organizing his teammates. Do you think that Messi has abandoned that way of thinking?

A. No. But leaders have to assume their responsibilities. They have to know that they need to score, because their teammates will give them the ball. When a team is struggling, they give the ball to the person who can save the play. Maradona was the chosen one – now, it’s Messi. Messi never forgets his responsibility to score goals. Against Australia [in the 2022 World Cup], he passed the ball to Alexis, but kept running forward. Alexis gave it to Otamendi, Otamendi bounced it and Messi got it again and pushed it in. Messi is always looking for depth… he has the ability to foresee what’s going to happen.

Q. It’s rare for a professional soccer player to have children who also manage to turn pro. How did you raise them to achieve so much success?

A. Well, first of all, I didn’t raise them alone. We were two parents – their mother and me. We must value the work of mothers all over the world.

Luka Modric of Croatia, Alexis Mac Allister of Argentina
Alexis Mac Allister during Argentina's semi-final match against Croatia, on Tuesday, December 13.AFP7 vía Europa Press (AFP7 vía Europa Press)

Q. Are today’s players better than the previous generation?

A. This is something we say when we’re getting old! Listen, science has done away with many lies – we analyze a lot more data today. When I got divorced, I began to submit reports to Ángel Martín González – sports director of the Osasuna soccer club [Pamplona, Spain]. Since I had to be with my children over the weekend, we would watch the tapes together and count the different variables: good passes, lost balls, defensive failures… my kids were only six, eight and nine-years-old and they were already learning how to interpret data. Today – at least, when it comes to European soccer – I know barely 10% of what they know.

Q. How do you feel about the latest additions to Argentina’s National Team?

A. This is a good generation of midfielders: Alexis, Enzo Fernández, Thiago Almada, Alejandro Domínguez, Exequiel Palacios... and this coach [Lionel Scalono] has given them the opportunity! He’s put them on the field. This has allowed Argentina to stay alive, especially because we had the misfortune of arriving in Qatar with many of our players injured.

Q. Was it clear to you that Alexis would make the roster?

A. I was convinced. When I saw the level he reached in Brighton [in the English Premier League], it was clear to me. Alexis’s best position is inside. Last year, Brighton put him behind the striker, because he knows how to pass, he’s aggressive. He knows how to find spaces, how to sacrifice his body. He has the statistics of the best: Kovacic, Hojbjerg, Henderson, Brozovic… I send him all the comparative reports.

Q. Is it true that you weren’t allowed to play in the 1994 World Cup because you hit your fellow player – “El Burrito” Ortega – during a game?

A. Not true! I didn’t hit him… but I should have buried him! Valdano, the great Argentine coach, who is also a football philosopher, once said: “Each and every footballer must maintain a little bit of criminality.” I didn’t have it that day…

Q. At the moment, there are at least 40,000 Argentina fans in Doha. As a father, do you worry that your son has so much pressure on him?

A. Alexis is not a guy who’s going to let pressure get to him. That’s his best quality.

Q. Is it difficult for the players on the National Team to resist always passing the ball to Messi?

A. If Messi is marked and the opposing player has a huge advantage, you have to give the ball to the player on your team who’s unguarded. Now, that being said, if Messi is well-guarded, but so are you… you have to pass it to Messi! You’ve got to know how to use the best player in the world. But you also can’t take him for granted, there needs to be enough intelligence to find others on the field who are open.

Q. Many Argentine players are said to fear Messi. But is there more love than fear?

A. This depends on the personality of each young person. They need to have good self-esteem, because Messi is a monster: he’s been the best player in the world for 15 years. No one has ever had such a long reign. Maradona, by the age of 35, was already retired. My son was six-years-old when Messi started his professional career… now, he’s his teammate.

Q. What has changed in Messi’s relationship with the fans?

A. Messi has shown the Argentine people that he loves the country and the jersey just as much as Maradona loved them. And he’s proven himself. Soccer fans know that, for the last 15 years, he’s been the best.

Q. What’s the craziest thing that happened to you with Maradona?

A. One night, during a very violent indoor match in Brazil, we almost died. Maradona flirted with death every single day.

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