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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 July, 2005, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Prodigy Messi hailed by Argentina
By Tim Vickery

Lionel Messi
Messi celebrates Argentina's World Youth Cup win

The curtain came down on the Diego Maradona era in the shirt of Argentina 11 years ago after a 2-1 win over Nigeria.

Now another victory by the same scoreline against the same opponents brings hope that Argentina, in 18-year-old Lionel Messi, have a player capable of making the decisive interventions in a game in the way that Maradona did.

The significant fact is not that Argentina beat Nigeria on Saturday to claim the World Youth Cup in Holland - this, after all, is a competition that Argentina have dominated in recent years.

What makes the 2005 triumph special is that it is the fruit of individual genius. Only 18, Messi practically won the championship on his own.

Diego Simeone pointed out recently that while Argentina produces excellent players, Brazil produces stars - a thought that was on many Argentine minds as those four Brazilian goals went flying in at the final of the Confederations Cup in Frankfurt.

But after Saturday's triumph in which Messi converted two penalties, Argentine football now has its own star.

Messi's contributions in Holland were as decisive, and as thrilling, as that of Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup.

Argentina had to get through four tough knockout games to lift the trophy, and against Colombia, Spain, Brazil and Nigeria.

In each game it was the same story. Messi tipped the balance.

In this age of physicality, Messi looks a most unlikely footballer.

He looks more like the pigeon-toed runt of the litter - until he gets the ball.

He has all the skills - fluency and balance, a superb left foot, the ability and confidence to try the unexpected.

He also has a football brain. As Spain coach Inaki Saez said after Messi eliminated his side: "He sees on the pitch what other only see from the stands."

Messi's combination of individual talent, collective sense and cool temperament justify the hope that he will blossom into one of the game's greats.

He has already made the move to one of the giants of European football - in unusual circumstances.

Lionel Messi
Messi in action for Barcelona

At the age of 13 he went to Spain in search of treatment for a hormonal problem which was preventing his bones from growing properly.

Barcelona were tipped off about his potential, and club stalwart Carlos Rexach went to have a look. "I snapped him up in half a minute," Rexach recalls, "and the first contract was signed symbolically on a serviette."

As he developed at Barca, Messi was offered a place in the Spanish youth side.

He turned it down. "I told them I'm an Argentine, from Rosario, and a leper," he said - referring not to another medical condition but to the nickname of supporters of the Newells Old Boys club.

The pressure will now be on for Messi to be fast-tracked into Argentina's senior side.

National team coach Jose Pekerman has announced his intention to bring Messi along slowly but there is a clear case for taking the youngster to next year's World Cup, if only to gain experience.

Argentina are currently built around the playmaking of Roman Riquelme, a wonderful passer of the ball, who nevertheless has a tendency to blow hot and cold.

After the Confederations Cup Pekerman admitted that he needs to work on some variations to cover those days when Riquelme is blowing cold.

Next year in Germany he would surely be reassured to glance along the substitutes' bench and let his eyes settle on Messi's impish face.


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