Football fans are known to love quizzes, but they would be forgiven for misidentifying the following player: he was born in Argentina but grew up in a different country; he made his top-flight debut for a team that play in blue and red; he excels as an attacking midfielder or forward; and he was present at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi? A good guess, but not right.
In fact, those same facts also apply to a countryman of La Pulga (The Flea), Juan Iturbe. The young Argentinian was raised in Paraguay, where he wore the jersey of Cerro Porteno, and was last year included in Diego Maradona’s ‘sparring’ squad, a group of promising youth players invited to South Africa to provide worthy training opponents for the senior team.
But the coincidental similarities between Iturbe and Messi do not end there. On the contrary, the Argentinian press has been pushing the comparison ever since the South American U-20 Championship in Peru earlier this year, where the highly-rated 18-year-old was able to showcase his array of skills to a wider audience.
“My team-mates have lumbered me with ‘Pulguita’ (Little Flea) – they call me it all the time, Iturbe told FIFA.com. "I find it a little awkward because Messi is the best in the world, a truly unique player, though I do feel a sense of pride when they say it, of course.”
If Iturbe can inspire his team to victory at the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, parallels will inevitably be drawn again with his idol, given that Messi took the same tournament by storm in 2005.
Iturbe’s story is essentially a tale of two countries. His Paraguayan parents were living and working in Buenos Aires at the time of his birth, but seven years later they returned to Asuncion to settle back in their homeland for good. Their talented son would go on to earn call-ups for Paraguay at various youth levels, culminating in the offer of a full senior cap for the precocious 16-year-old in a friendly versus Chile in November 2009. However, the offer to become part of Argentina's youth structure proved too tempting.
“I’ve made my decision: I’m going to play for Argentina," Iturbe stated at the time. "I want to win things wearing this jersey."
In La Albiceleste’s opening 2-1 victory over Uruguay in Peru, he made that ambition abundantly clear by scoring a dramatic last-gasp winner. While his newly-adopted team were unable to secure the trophy, two more Messi-style goals - against Brazil and Chile - from Iturbe cemented his reputation as a rising star.
“He’s an explosive player who can really unsettle teams, but we want to take things slowly with him," said Argentina U-20 coach Walter Perazzo. "We’re aware that the media has built him up but we’re hoping to take some of the pressure off his back. He offers something a bit different, and he’s going to make a big impact on the game worldwide.”
The former San Lorenzo striker is credited with surrounding Iturbe with players perfectly suited to bringing out the best in his game, the highlight of which includes short, darting runs, mesmerising dribbles performed at pace, and a composure when one-on-one with the goalkeeper that belies his years.
Iturbe, whose debut in continental club football saw him score two goals against Chilean outfit Colo-Colo in the Copa Libertadores, quickly attracted the attention of many of Europe’s big-name clubs, but it was Porto who won the race for his signature, once a short-lived dispute with Cerro Porteno was resolved. But before thinking too much about his future with the Portuguese champions, he is fully focused on the present task in Colombia.
“The goal is to do ourselves proud and to battle to become world champions," Iturbe said, aware that many high-profile Argentinians have made the step up to the senior side after lifting the prestigious FIFA U-20 World Cup trophy. "Argentina are always among the favourites, no matter the tournament.”
Diego Maradona, with whom he proudly got his picture taken at South Africa 2010, did it in 1979, while Messi himself did it in 2005. Iturbe is not fixated on following in other players’ footsteps and lifting the prize in Colombia, however.
“I have to laugh when people compare me to Messi," he said. "I’m just starting out, while what he does every day at Barcelona is truly impressive. But let me be as clear as possible: I want to make my own mark on the game.”