Lionel Messi grows into role as Diego Maradona's heir at Barcelona
Lionel, then 11, had been diagnosed with a hormonal problem that would impede his growth and, if untreated, would end his hopes of becoming a professional footballer. No club in Argentina would take on the £500 per month treatment so Messi snr took his son to Spain and entered him for a trial at Barcelona. Ten years on and the cost of those injections must feel like the best investment Barcelona ever made. Related ArticlesDeco: Messi gives Barca the edgeFranck Ribery the man to challenge Lionel Messi and BarcelonaWorld Cup round-up: Diego Maradona records first victory with ArgentinaBarcelona and Lionel Messi ready for ChelseaBayern Munich v Barcelona: Champions League Game ZoneMasters 2009: Angel Cabrera a unique championMessi is the best player in the world, an exhilarating player at the top of his game: so far this season he has scored an improbable 33 goals in 44 games. How do you stop this squat figure as it weaves in sinuously from the right? Clubs in Spain have tried doubling up, cutting off his supply or even just kicking him. None of it has worked. And were this not scary enough, Guus Hiddink has to find a way of stopping Messi without the use of his only proper left-back – Ashley Cole is suspended and will watch form the stands of the Camp Nou on Tuesday as the Argentine takes on the right-footed Jose Bosingwa. What separates Messi from a player like Cristiano Ronaldo is that style and substance are always in harmony. Ronaldo can embellish his game with art for art's sake but Messi's tricks and dribbles are performed purely to enable the quickest route to goal. It was intriguing to hear Hiddink describe him primarily as a 'productive' player. "I like very much the way he plays," Hiddink said. "I think he doesn't like the stardom of playing but he's very effective. He's one of those players that makes it look very simple but it is very difficult what they do – nature gives them a lot of gifts." Ronaldinho, Messi's predecessor as Camp Nou fantasista, was also guilty of playing more for the crowd than for the game and it has taken impressive work from Josep Guardiola to rebuild the Frank Rijkaard team that had come to to rely on the mercurial Brazilian. Of the Barcelona starting XI that beat Arsenal in the Champions League three years ago – Thierry Henry's last game before moving to the Camp Nou – only four are still at the club (Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez, Victor Valdes and Samuel Eto'o). It was a side that, in decline, ended up indulging Ronaldinho's compellingly individual approach to the game. The Brazilian's best moves were reserved for television adverts. Messi missed out on that final in Paris, having torn a thigh muscle against Chelsea earlier in the competition. Those incendiary games with Jose Mourinho's side had first brought Messi to the attention of the English football public – and it wasn't for his elusive dribbling that he came to prominence. In the first leg at Stamford Bridge he went on a tenacious run down the right, nicking the ball off Arjen Robben near the corner flag, only to have the onrushing Asier del Horno slam into him. It was a clumsy, if not malicious, foul by the Chelsea left-back and he was sent off. However, after hitting then turf, Messi seemed to look up at the referee before rolling over and over like a petulant toddler. After the game Mourinho sarcastically celebrated his acting skills. There is certainly a petulant side to Messi. His international debut against Hungary lasted all of 40 seconds as he was sent off for throwing an elbow at a defender who was tugging his shirt. Having won the World Youth Cup in 2005, Argentine football fans had been tremendously excited by Messi's impending debut – none were expecting to end with him trudging from the field in tears. It is that blend of the cynical and the sublime that makes him the first credible heir to Diego Maradona. A long line of successors have been falsely anointed – Ortega, Riquelme, Aimar, Saviola, D'Alessandro – only to suffer under the weight of impossible expectation. Messi, though, has taken on the legacy of Maradona and at times has appeared to be consciously parodying it. In June 2007 Barcelona were hunting David Beckham's Real Madrid in the penultimate game of the La Liga season, but were losing to city rivals Espanyol. Messi leapt and flicked the ball into the net with his hand, and celebrated without shame. The goal was given. Only a couple of months earlier he had scored a spectacular goal against Getafe, dribbling from within his own half, that was strikingly similar to Maradiona's famed goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. 'Messidona' read the headline the following morning. Those two goals – cynical and sublime – were a revelation, their execution so uncannily imitative, that the second coming of El Diego seemed at hand. Maradona, now Messi's national team manager, never won the European Cup in his time with Barcelona and Napoli, so in that regard Messi will be carving out his very own legacy if he leads the club to what would only be their third European title. With over a decade of football in front of him, it is vertiginous to think of what Messi could achieve in his career. Astonishing to think that it was nearly over before it began.
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