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Last Updated: Monday, 22 August 2005, 08:12 GMT 09:12 UK
Messi handles 'new Maradona' tag
By Tim Vickery

Argentine teenage sensation Lionel Messi
Messi lifted the World Youth Cup with Argentina this summer
Last Monday Diego Maradona made his debut as an all-singing, all-dancing chat show host.

Two days later, his successor played his first game for Argentina.

Over the last 15 years an entire production line of Argentine talent has been weighed down with 'the new Maradona' tag.

It is, of course, an easy cliché to fall into.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that in this time 18-year-old Lionel Messi is the most exciting Argentine talent to have emerged, an attacking midfielder who promises to be able to tip the balance at the highest level.

In June, the little left footer won the World Youth Cup practically single handed, and last Wednesday came his much-awaited senior debut.

By a quirk of history the opponents were Hungary - the very side against which Maradona got his international start.

The two will have very different memories of their debuts. In 1977, Maradona's Argentina won 5-1.

In 2005, Argentina were also victorious, winning 2-1. But Messi was brought on after 63 minutes, and sent off after 65.

But we are not dealing with an ordinary footballer. Although he was on the field for just a minute and a half, his international debut has been judged a success.

Messi's red card was a crime against football

Firstly because in his brief appearance, he did not show the slightest sign of being overawed, calling for the ball and gliding past opponents with skill and fluency.

Second, because his red card was a crime against football. Messi burst past a defender, who grabbed on to his shirt to hold him back.

Messi used his arm to try to wriggle free. There was no elbow, no violence - just an attempt to get on with the game.

But the defender fell as if pole-axed, and out came the red card.

This was a hard-fought friendly. There were some rugged tackles, and some blatant dives. Messi did none of this. He made no attempt to cheat.

He was the victim of anti-football, and yet he was the one sent off.

It is hard to think of a refereeing decision more contrary to the spirit of the game.

Back in Buenos Aires, Maradona alleged that the decision was pre-meditated, as if German referee Markus Merk was aware of the significance of the occasion and set out to spoil it.

This is surely going too far. But it felt as though Merk relished the moment in the spirit of a big teacher imparting a lesson to the new boy.

He needs to have a serious think about his approach to the job.

Thankfully Argentina coach José Pekerman was showing more common sense.

Without going overboard in his criticisms of the referee he came to the defence of his player in the best way possible.

"I congratulated Messi because he went out to play his football," he said, and that summed it all up.

Messi has since been named in Argentina's squad for the World Cup qualifier away to Paraguay at the start of September.

And in 20 years time Merk may well have been forgotten, while Lionel Messi could be preparing for his debut as a chat show host.

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12 Jul 05 |  World Football


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