Messi: Third time a charm
© AFP

Over the years, a succession of Argentinian players have been hailed as 'the new Diego Maradona'. Very few, however, have been blessed with as many qualities as the latest heir to that sizable throne, one Lionel Messi.

Possessing superb vision, mesmerising close control and sublime technique, the left-footed Messi comes into his own in the tightly congested areas of midfield, finding and darting through seemingly impossible gaps with deceptive ease. With his explosive change of pace, breathtaking dribbling and unerring eye for goal, he poses a continual threat to opposing teams.

While the Barcelona star is always at pains to avoid comparisons with El Diego, his goal against Getafe in April 2007, a virtual carbon copy of the legendary No10's second against England in the quarter-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, served only to underline the similarities between the two. On one occasion Maradona himself was moved to say: "I've seen the player who will take my place in Argentinian football and his name is Lionel Messi." After that, no one was surprised when Maradona – now Argentina’s coach – handed Messi his old No10 jersey for the South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign.

Born on 24 June 1987 in Rosario, Santa Fe, Messi first served notice of his artistry in the youth ranks at Newell's Old Boys. At the age of 13, as the economic crisis ravaging Argentina reached its height, he moved with his family to Spain. After settling in Barcelona, the teenager was invited to the Nou Camp for a trial, where he was spotted by the then Blaugrana youth team coach Carles Rexach. "I saw him straightaway, and just to make sure I made him sign for the club on the back of a paper napkin," Rexach would later recall.

So slender was he for his age that he was quickly dubbed La Pulga (The Flea), with the club also arranging for special medical treatment to stimulate the young wizard's growth hormones. Suitably bulked up, Messi made his Spanish league debut at the end of 2004, but it was the following year that his inexorable rise to stardom began. His first goal in Barcelona colours came on 1 May against Albacete, making him the youngest scorer in the club's long history, a record only recently eclipsed by the precocious Bojan Krkic.

International star born
His love affair with the blue-and-white jersey of Argentina began just a few months later when he played a starring role in the side that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, making off with the adidas Golden Shoe as the tournament's top scorer and the adidas Golden Ball as the best player just for good measure.

In August that year, Jose Nestor Pekerman gave Messi his first full international cap in a friendly against Hungary. It proved to be an unhappy beginning, however. Just 47 seconds after coming on the debutant was dismissed for lashing out after a foul.

Nevertheless, the youngster was back less than two months later to make his first start for the Albiceleste in a Germany 2006 qualifying match against Peru in Buenos Aires. His first goal for his country followed on 1 March 2006 in a friendly against Croatia and by the time he arrived in Germany he was being widely tipped as one of the tournament's star performers. To the surprise of many, however, Messi played only a supporting role for his side and looked on from the bench as his team-mates lost out to the hosts in the quarter-finals.

In 2007, Messi put in a strong performance at the Copa America in Venezuela, where his team finished second, losing to Brazil in the final. La Pulga pulled off some suitably magic moments in that competition, such as the memorable goal he scored against Mexico in the semi-finals. One year later he was again the star of the team that retained the Gold Medal at the Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing. His output was such that the he went on to finish second behind Cristiano Ronaldo at the FIFA Player of the Year Gala.

Glittering career
Playing for Barcelona, Messi has already won three national league titles, one Copa del Rey, one European SuperCup, three Spanish SuperCups, two UEFA Champions League titles and the FIFA Club World Cup. Messi played an integral role as Barcelona won their first FIFA Club World Cup, scoring the winning goal in the final against Estudiantes and being named winner of the adidas Golden Ball as the best player in the competition. Add that to his two-time runner-up finishes in the voting for FIFA World Player of the Year, and Messi looks like one of the finest players in the game’s recent history.

During the 2008/2009 season, the player’s potential was confirmed beyond all doubt. Already owner of the historical No10 worn by Maradona, Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, La Pulga helped Barcelona to the coveted Triple Crown of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles. As if that were not enough, he was top scorer in the Champions League with nine goals, including one in the final against Manchester United. In the Copa del Rey he scored six times, and he even managed to score 23 times in the league.

Qualified now for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010, Messi is looking to prove that he can match his amazing club form with Argentina on the world stage. Runner-up at the Copa America and in the last two FIFA Player of the Year Galas, Messi has now taken the biggest step of his career by being crowned king of football for 2009. The first-ever Argentinian to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, the Barcelona star proved a popular and modest winner and, at 22, is sure to be a contender for such honours for years to come.