Lionel Messi, who added FIFA’s World Player of the Year award to his prestigious Ballon D’Or accolade, has certainly proved he can handle the pressure.
It is more than four years since Diego Maradona lauded the man from Santa Fe as the player who should inherit his own mantle as national footballing hero and Messi, unlike several would-be successors who flattered to deceive, has gone from strength to strength.
Having started out with Newells Old Boys in his homeland Messi soon came to Barcelona’s attention, who moved him and his family to Europe as the club offered to provide treatment for the youngster’s growth hormone deficiency.
“Without growth hormones Lionel would have grown, at best, to 1m50 by the time he reached adulthood,” his father Jorge told L’Equipe Magazine.
Once installed in the first team, by the 2004-05 season, he also led Argentina to under-20 glory and a season later featured prominently as Barca won La Liga and the Champions League – though he missed out on the final win over Arsenal as he had just returned from injury.
However, Messi rectified that particular omission last May with a superb goal-scoring performance in the final win over Manchester United – he hit nine in the event in total – while also showing scintillating form as the Catalan club marched to La Liga and Spanish Cup for good measure.
After receiving arguably the world’s most prestigious award, the Ballon d’Or for Europe’s top player, in early December Messi, only 22 years old, has now succeeded Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo on both fronts.
Whereas Ronaldo, who pipped the Argentine to the post last year, is comfortable in the media spotlight, the timid Messi shuns the limelight, preferring to allow his talents alone to do all the talking.
According to his father, even as a youngster back home, “people would pay to see him play with Newell’s,” his father once said ahead of his October 2004 debut against Espanyol.
His first goal against Albacete on May 1, 2005 made him the Spanish league’s youngest ever scorer at 17, 10 months and seven days.
Having been top scorer in the under-20 competition four years ago Messi saw Barca set his contract get-out clause at 150 million dollars. The club swiftly extended that deal to 2010 and then again to 2014.
Amid Maradona’s praiseworthy assessment, Catalan daily La Vanguardia also hailed the “devilish” talent in his idol’s number ten shirt who “proves the master wherever he plays. The Maradona comparison comes automatically.”
Barcelona daily El Mundo Deportivo is even more effusive.
“He has the left foot of Maradona, the switch of rhythm of (Johan) Cruyff and the lethal passing of Ronaldinho,” the paper said of Messi.
With Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o also up front the club’s attacking trident were collectively unstoppable.
And although both have now left, Messi’s full range of skills have ensured that his club have not suffered but seamlessly carried on from where they left off.
Highlights in Barca’s colours include a hat-trick against Real in a thrilling draw in 2007 at the Nou Camp and a thrilling slalom and finish in the Spanish Cup against Getafe, compared with Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.
With Argentina he has been a little less effective of late with the team generally struggling to find their form and limping through to the World Cup finals.
On that level, even Maradona has voiced a tad of criticism.
“Leo plays for Leo,” the controversial national coach told Fox Sports last year.
Charging that Messi sometimes “forgets his teammates” Maradona added: “He’s Deportivo Messi.”
Nonetheless, Messi has every reason to shine for Maradona in South Africa, after former coach Jose Pekerman left him on the bench for the 2006 quarter-final penalty shootout loss to Germany.