Lionel Messi leads potent Argentina at 2010 World Cup

Argentina's Lionel Messi, right, has immense skill and a unique capability in tight spaces, leading to goals scored in bunches.
Argentina's Lionel Messi, right, has immense skill and a unique capability in tight spaces, leading to goals scored in bunches. (Daniel Luna/ap)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- He is soccer's reigning star, the 2009 winner of the FIFA World player of the year award. And he leads an elite team, Barcelona, which is accustomed to thrashing opponents in Spain's first division, La Liga. Loyal fans, from Spain to Argentina, know him as an explosive striker who seemingly scores at will over some of the world's best defenders.

But the big question is: Can Lionel Messi take Argentina to the World Cup title, which his country has won twice but not since 1986?

Horacio Pagani, a longtime soccer columnist for Clarin, the country's biggest newspaper, said that Argentina's star-studded team must first become just that -- a team. This means giving Messi the opportunity to play as he does in Barcelona, where he does not carry a talented squad but is given ample opportunities to score by a collection of brilliant playmakers.

"He has to think of himself as just one more player on the team, not the savior of the team," Pagani said. "But he is an extraordinary striker. The team needs to give him the support he needs to do his work."

Messi will be one of the most covered athletes at the World Cup, which opens in South Africa on June 11. The Cape Times called him "the best player in the world" and predicted "his every move will be examined closely." The paper concluded that if Messi reaches "the heights he is capable of, one of the great World Cup stories will be played out."

Messi's story, to be sure, has been all storybook. Because of a growth-hormone deficiency diagnosed when he was 11, Messi was an undersized youth growing up in Rosario, a city about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. But Spanish scouts believed they had a superstar in the making when they first saw him play. At 13, Barcelona moved Messi and his family to Spain, where he trained at the club's youth academy and received growth-hormone injections.

Now 22, Messi is still just 5 feet 7 inches tall. In Argentina, he is known as "La Pulga," or the flea.

But Messi has blossomed into European soccer's most electrifying player, capable of breaking through gaps in the defense and then accelerating past two or three opponents to score. In taking Barcelona to the La Liga title last year, Messi averaged more than one goal per game.

"Messi is the best in the world, and if he has the ball, we have more possibilities," Argentina Coach Diego Maradona told reporters. "Thank God he's an Argentine."

Messi's speed, his knack for eluding defenders and his ability to score at key moments have drawn comparisons to Maradona, who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup and is considered, along with Brazil's Pele, as one of the two greatest players ever.

But Messi has not yet demonstrated the same kind of play for the national team as he has for Barcelona. Messi, who is usually low-key when talking about his playing style, seems to understand what is expected of him.

"To become a legend, to become great, you have to also win the World Cup," he told Spain's El Mundo newspaper recently.

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