Lionel Messi’s trophy case must be a sight to behold.
At 22, the prodigal Argentine midfielder has garnered just about every accolade imaginable, both individually and at the club level with Barcelona. The one thing missing from Messi’s collection however, is any form of international hardware, apart from the Olympic Gold Medal that he helped Argentina capture in 2008.
That may very well be about to change.
The man that most people consider to be the best player in the world, and the heir-apparent to Diego Maradona with Argentina’s national team, leads as good a squad as any heading to South Africa for World Cup 2010. Along with Messi, Argentina’s lineup will boast names like Carlos Tevez( Manchester City), Javier Mascherano (Liverpool), Juan Sebastian Veron (Estudiantes), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid), Diego Milito (Inter Milan) and Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid).
Messi, among the youngest members of Maradona’s World Cup squad, will serve as the catalyst for the Argentine attack if–and this may be the mother of all “ifs” for Argentina’s tourney chances–he is utilized properly.
One of the knocks on Messi has been his inability to replicate his tremendous club success at the international level. At Barca, where he made his first La Liga start in 2004-2005 as one of the youngest players to ever appear for the potent Spanish side, he has become the featured player in the offense, and he is still getting better. That must be a sobering fact for every other manager in the league, as Messi, affectionately referred to as “the flea” due to his diminutive stature (he is listed at a generous 5″7″), netted 34 goals in 35 games this past season.
So why is the man who is supposed to be the second coming of Maradona finding that high level of international success so elusive? Ironically enough, one of the largest reasons (and the one I subscribe to personally) is, well, Maradona himself.
Maradona is prone to fits of effusiveness when it comes to praising young Argentinean players (he once called Tevez “the Argentinean prophet for the 21st century”), and his go-to move is anointing players as the new, well, Maradona (it is a wonder that the man’s small frame can accommodate all that ego, ain’t it?). In fact, if you are a young Argentine footballer in the neighborhood of 5-feet tall and you haven’t been called the second coming by Maradona, it may be time to make some tough career decisions.
Not only does that sort of comparison heap unneeded pressure on the shoulders of a young player, but Maradona truly takes on Sports Illustrated-like properties when it comes to these rash pronouncements: very few of the legion of “new Maradona’s” ever live up to the label for more than a brief moment.
Messi looks like a serious contender to actually earn the hastily doled out sobriquet: a win in South Africa would put the matter beyond debate, as far as I am concerned.
Again, the biggest obstacle to this achievement: Maradona.
Messi has struggled when used as a striker, and he is most comfortable out wide and cutting in on his left foot. So where do you think Maradona usually plays him? I’ll tell you where he doesn’t play him: wide on the right, Messi’s natural position.
In my mind, this is the major cause of his inability to be as effective internationally as he is in club play. If Maradona suddenly acts completely out of character and puts his best player in the position where he is most comfortable (and, by extension, dangerous) than I think we will bear witness to a truly memorable performance from Messi at the World Cup. Even if he doesn’t, Messi is so good, and Argentina so formidable, that “the flea” and company may just leave all opponents scratching their heads in South Africa in spite of their managers obstinance.