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Messi the brightest star at start of World Cup

Can Lionel Messi lead Argentina to glory in South Africa?

Argentina Lionel Messi, World Cup soccer star
Barcelona's Lionel Messi moves the ball between two defenders in a Spanish First Division soccer match in Seville May 8, 2010. (Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters)

“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi.” — Diego Maradona

BOSTON — At first glance, even at third and fourth glance, he is physically unprepossessing. Indeed Lionel Messi looks almost frail: spindly legs under slumped shoulders topped by a tousled mop of hair. His movements have a slightly herky-jerky, puppet-on-the-string feeling.

Only cumulatively does the bob and weave evolve into something majestic, a soccer ballet. Like the one the Barcelona star performed against Arsenal in the Champions League quarterfinal when he scored four goals in every fashion: a rocket blast from outside; a slalom run through the defense with the ball angled past the goalkeeper; a chip shot off a full-speed run over the stunned keeper’s head; and a rebound rammed through the goalkeeper’s legs.

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Afterwards, his coach Pepe Guardiola would insist there were simply no words to describe what all had witnessed. But Paul Gardner, the oft-acerbic Brit columnist for Soccer America proved him wrong when he offered “a few well-chosen words” on the game and simply wrote “Messi” 49 times.

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Lionel Messi, who will turn 23 during the World Cup 2010, is the world’s biggest soccer star. The Argentinean was FIFA World Player of the Year last year and appears certain to repeat after a season in which he scored 47 goals (and assisted on 14 more) in 53 games with the Spanish champions.

But the Messi-anic cult will only reach full flower, the comparison with Maradona will only seem fully warranted, if Messi can reach the same heights on the biggest stage of all, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Messi has tasted international glory. He was named the outstanding player in the tournament when Argentina won the U-20 World Cup in 2005 and led his country to Olympic gold in Beijing.

Yet there is a feeling that — after scoring just 13 goals in 44 appearances with the national team — he has not quite found the same cozy, Barcelona-like fit back home. And as Argentina stumbled through qualification, barely finishing fourth in South America, that concern only heightened. Journalists and fans have begun wondering aloud — given that he and his family left Argentina for Barcelona a decade ago — where Messi’s heart truly lies.