At the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, no side has yet found the formula to stymie Lionel Messi, the devilish midfielder who jinks his way between markers to create wonderful assists or ruthlessly finish on his own. The young Argentine has not only been his side's most influential player, he has become the revelation of the tournament.
When the possibility of winning one of the tournament's individual awards is mentioned to the player, he shakes his head but fails to entirely suppress a smile. "That would be wonderful, but here what is important is the group's objective, which is to become world champions. If after that there is some individual recognition, then better still," Messi tells FIFA.com.
The exceedingly shy Messi, who turned 18 on the eve of his side's quarter-final victory on Saturday, has had to overcome his natural timidity in the face of incessant media attention that is growing by the game. He tries to deal with it all as patiently as he can, but cannot help cringing slightly when the microphones appear. "I'm trying to stay calm about everything, although the only thing I want is to get out on the pitch and do what I like best. When I can do that, I forget all about the media spotlight."
At the tender age of 13, the player moved with his parents and three brothers to Barcelona to escape the ravages of Argentina's economic crisis and seek a better future. After spending a 15-day trial at La Massía with FC Barcelona, the young Leo was convinced he had come to the right place, as were astounded club officials, who wasted no time in signing the player to the club until 2012. The club's medical staff also undertook to design a special program that would maximise the diminutive teenager's physical development.
A South American classic
From the Utrecht hotel that serves as the team's headquarters, the Argentine players watched the nervy final minutes of the FIFA Confederations Cup semi-final between Mexico and Argentina - a game their compatriots finally won on penalties. "We caught the end of the game after training, and it looked very tight to me," remarks Messi. Can the player already imagine himself in a similar position? The No.18 laughs at the suggestion. "It's much too early for that. Right now we're completely focused on what's happening at this World Youth Championship, where we have the chance to achieve something really special."
The Argentinian youth side face the same rival in their semi-final as the senior side will meet in the grand final at Germany 2005: Brazil. This is the original South American classic, and a game every player wants to take part in. "Just like all the preceding games, we know this one will be tough. It's a clasico and while it will be beautiful to play in, it will also be difficult. We'll need to show the same attitude and selflessness that were apparent in our last two games and fight with everything we have to come out on top," says the Rosario-born teenager.
Argentina come into the match with their spirits high after coming through two tough games. In the last 16, they eliminated a strong Colombia side that looked capable of going all the way, and in the quarters, two minutes of Messi-inspired magic put paid to the chances of another of the favourites Spain, who had strolled through their group almost without breaking sweat. "Little by little the team have been finding their groove. We had that little slip-up at the outset against the USA, but we came good in our other group games. A combination of good football and the right mentality has brought us this far," he says.
Messi was actually given the option of playing for Spain, but his Argentine roots held sway and he declined the opportunity. Ironically, he turned out to be the one that condemned his adopted country to defeat. "They had more of the ball, but we made better use of our chances. I liked the way we started the game, with passion and drive. We were under the cosh a bit in the second half but controlled things well in the end," the Barcelona player says.
With every game he moves a step closer to a title that Maradona, Riquelme, Saviola, Cambiasso and Lux have all won in their day. Though clearly excited by the prospect of emulating some of his country's greats, Messi resists the temptation of thinking too far ahead and prefers instead to stay fully focused on his next game. "Honestly, we are taking it one step at a time and only thinking about Brazil. If that goes well, there'll be plenty of time to talk about a final."
This self-confessed Pablo Aimar fan - he says the player's shirt is his prized possession - has even been singled out for praise by Maradona himself. "The truth is that it feels great when other people speak well of you. It gives you the incentive to keep learning and keep working hard," the player says.
The precociously talented Argentine will be hoping that his side's testing semi against Brazil this Wednesday at the Galgenwaard Stadium in Utrecht will not be their last at Netherlands 2005.