Messi the brightest star at start of World Cup

“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.

Barcelona certainly warrants plenty of devotion on his part. Messi began playing at age 5 — always competing against older kids — for a team coached by his father. Though he was clearly gifted and eventually moved up to a prominent youth team, his future appeared stymied by a growth deficiency which — without expensive hormone treatments — would leave him hopelessly undersized, no more than five feet tall, for the upper reaches of the game.

Barcelona came to the rescue, moving the Messi family to Spain where the club would pay for the necessary medical treatments. That decision — with Messi now listed at 5’7” and, after a tapas spree, tipping the scales at almost 140 pounds — stands as both visionary and an extraordinary bargain.

It is, of course, not Messi’s strength that is his defining quality, though the swift release and the power of his shot always comes as a surprise. Rather it is his shiftiness, his balance and his magician’s guile with the ball that leave defenders flatfooted as he dances past them.

But can he dance to Maradona’s tune? Ever since Maradona took over as coach midway through qualification, Argentineans have fretted that the combination, however intoxicating, may actually prove toxic. Messi’s talent may rival Maradona’s a quarter century ago, but his personality is the antithesis. Messi is a soft-spoken, self-effacing, team-first player who, off the field, lives a quiet, devout lifestyle. Maradona’s ego is still a colossus and — while his long period of drug and alcohol abuse is, hopefully, behind him — he remains crude and combative.

Despite offering the highest praise and even awarding Messi his old number 10 uniform, Maradona has shown reluctance to construct the team around Messi’s singular talent. Some believe that the coach would rather sabotage Messi than witness him having a World Cup campaign to rival Maradona’s legendary 1986 performance, when he led Argentina to the title and scored two of the most memorable goals in Cup history.

Paranoia is in the air — abundant and infectious — before every World Cup. If Messi falters in South Africa, it is far more likely to be because a superb team — as Inter Milan demonstrated in the Champions League — can occasionally squash him amid multiple defenders. Still, most have tried and failed. After all, his talent has inspired comparisons not only with Maradona, but with Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Messi operates in another dimension, one seemingly unbound by conventional notions of time and space.

Nor by conventional notions of nationality. Messi seems certain to be cheered by more people from more places than any other player in World Cup 2010. After all, his glory would be the game’s glory.

Name: Lionel Messi
Country: Argentina
Age: 22
Club Team: Barcelona
World Cups: 1
World Cup Goals: 1
Club appearances 2009-10: 53
Club goals 2009-10: 47

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