Monday, July 9, 2007
ESPNsoccernet: July 12, 4:55 PM UK
Messi sets the standard
Andrew Downie in Venezuela
Lionel Messi turned 20 last month and he got a special present. It wasn't the watch that his team-mates clubbed together to buy for him and Juan Roman Riquelme, who shares his birthday.
It was a simple little photo of Messi the boy holding the first of what would turn out to be many footballing trophies. Scribbled on the kid's crimson shirt is the dedication, 'With tenderness, and Happy Birthday, Diego (10).'
If that summed up Maradona's respect for Messi the man, his admiration for Messi the footballer came a few days later. And it left no doubt as to the potential of Barcelona's brilliant young winger.
'He is,' Maradona said, 'the one that is most like me.'
Argentina hasn't wanted for successors to the great man since he hung up his boots in 1997 but few look like they fit the bill better than Messi. After a promising last season at Barcelona, the first in which he made his presence felt on a regular basis, he has come to the Copa America and shown he has the class to produce the goods at international level.
Along with the mercurial Juan Roman Riquelme he has been one of Argentina's outstanding performers in Venezuela and one of the best players of the tournament so far. He was one of Argentina's stars in the opening matches against the US and Colombia and was so outstanding after coming off the bench against Paraguay that his 24 minutes on the field were enough to win him the sponsor's Man of the Match award.
With Messi in the side, Argentina have been unstoppable. Four games, 14 goals, and some of the loveliest football they have played in years.
'We're doing things the way I like them to be done,' manager Alfio Basile said after the 4-0 win over Peru. 'Not just winning, that's obvious... but beautiful football. It makes me proud to win this way.'
The Argentines are favourites to take the title next Sunday because of and in spite of their quality-laden squad. Before the tournament they were riven by personality clashes more reminiscent of the Dutch.
The most obvious was the return of former Manchester United midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron. Veron was made the scapegoat for Argentina's World Cup debacle in 2002 and he played no part in the plans of coach Jose Pekerman, who took Argentina to Germany last year.
But the man known as The Little Wizard is enjoying an Indian summer to his career at Estudiantes, helping lead the side to their first league title in 23 years in December. He has had issues with other players, however, and some were said to have asked Basile to leave him out the team for Venezuela.
The rumours were strong enough that Veron was forced to defend his inclusion in the squad and he has made visible efforts to mend bridges on this trip.
Another high-profile clash was between Riquelme and Hernan Crespo. Riquelme appeared to isolate Crespo during the World Cup last year by not giving him the ball and there was talk of lingering bad blood between the two on the eve of the tournament.
Crespo especially sought to downplay the rumours and he made a point of running to Riquelme to congratulate him for the service after he notched Argentina's first goal against the US from a Riquelme free kick.
A third, and perhaps less troublesome issue was the return of Javier Zanetti, Argentina's most capped player after his defensive teammate Roberto Ayala. Pekerman did not take the Internazionale star to the World Cup because he considered him a divisive presence in his squad but he has won his place back under Basile and seems to have fit right in again.
All the players have sought to put those episodes behind them and stress the current squad has its eye on the prize. In training at least, they have looked friendly and insiders said that it is one of the most united groups in recent memory.
Messsi has fit right it and although he is the undeniable focus of the squad - as the screams and attention show - the timid lad his teammates call 'The Flea' has kept his head down and tried to be one of the boys.
Many of the players, and especially manager Basile, are protective of Messi. Basile treats him as a father does a son, both protecting him and kidding him. At a press conference last week, the gruff 63-year old took questions along with Riquelme and when the next reporter addressed the third of three queries to him, he teasingly answered, 'Why don't you ask Messi here, he can answer questions too. He'd love to answer. Go on, ask him.'
Messi laughed and visibly blushed but when the questions have come he has handled them admirably. One of the most impressive things about him is the poise with which he handles the incredible pressure. Of the four post-match press conferences, Messi has appeared at two, more than any other player bar Riquelme, suggesting he takes such events in his stride. He doesn't look at ease behind the microphone but he hasn't shirked from it either.
The same applies to his public appearances. Everywhere he goes the diminutive striker has been greeted with welcomes more suited to teenage pop stars than first class football players.
Girls scream his name and boys hold up shirts and balls to be signed. Everyone wants an autograph or a photo. Within minutes of the kick off in Barquisimeto the other night, fans were chanting his name and screaming on Basile to give him a chance.
Messi has rejected the notion he is the symbol of the Argentine presence here and tried, somewhat vainly, to reinforce the collective over the individual.
'I don't see my self as the man who carries the flag of the squad,' he told reporters after he set up Mascherano for his winning goal against Paraguay. 'I feel like one guy in a group that is very much united and I am delighted to be part of it. No more than that.'
Maradona would be to differ. As he said on another occasion last week, Messi is on a whole different level. Above the rest and below Diego. For now.
'Lionel Messi has a long road ahead of him,' Maradona said when asked whether no. 18 was better than no. 10. 'He might eventually become a better player than me but time will tell. I would really love that. Lio is a great lad, he has the potential to be a great. I already am.'
Read Andrew Downie's blog on the Copa action here...
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