Stage set for Messi to thrill

The football world is in raptures over diminutive Argentinian Lionel Messi as he prepares to become one of the show-stoppers at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. The lavishly-skilled winger, who has just turned 21, will lead the Albiceleste's challenge to defend their Olympic title.

Messi, a mercurial, 1.69m player with intricate dribbling skills, was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at a young age, yet he now stands as a colossus in world football. He has been burdened with 'the new Maradona' tag, but even the legendary 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ winner does not disagree.

"I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football and his name is Messi," he said. "Messi is a genius and he can become an even better player. His potential is limitless and I think he's got everything it takes to become Argentina's greatest player."

Messi's former coach at Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard, also holds the prodigy in the highest regard. "He's a unique player and he deserves it, because he can do things of almost imperceptible excellence and is a gem to watch," the Dutchman enthused.

Rijkaard's compatriot Johann Cruyff, a former Barcelona player and the European Player of the Century, also lauded Messi. "He deserves ten out of ten for doing what he does," he remarked.

"He is a sensation but still he can improve. He must know when to move the ball on quickly and when to try the impossible mission. When he learns this, he won't win a single Golden Ball, but an entire collection."

Charming the enemy
Messi's Argentina team-mate Juan Sebastian Veron is another unabashed fan. "I see Maradona every time he grabs the ball and accelerates. We must protect him," commented the Estudiantes veteran. I'd personally put him in a drawer of my bedside table."

The mutual admiration society does not just end there with the playing fraternity, but even with opposing fans. There were arresting scenes at Argentina's recent FIFA World Cup qualifier with fierce enemies Brazil in Belo Horizonte. The game ended goalless but the Brazilian crowd applauded Messi, who was arguably the best player on the field, when he was substituted.

"Messi's plaudits are hard to accept, we play in other countries and we do not see the local fans supporting our players there," said Brazil left-wingback Gilberto. "Over 40 thousand Brazilians applauded and that's hard for who is on the field. When I see them applauding Messi I get annoyed."

Messi is now out to impress audiences in China PR when the Men's Olympic Football Tournament begins on 6 August. "I am going to the Olympic Games whatever may happen," he said.

"It is up to me to decide and the Olympic Games are something I will never be able to play in again and I am very excited at the prospect. There is no doubt that I will be there. I have really high hopes with the Olympic squad."