Lionel Messi is one of those very rare players who commands respect the world over. Yet despite finishing runner-up at last year's FIFA World Player awards and being acclaimed by the media and those within the game, the Rosario-born ace had sometimes struggled to replicate his best club form with La Albicelete. However, all that changed on Saturday 28 March, when Argentina hosted Venezuela on Matchday 11 of the South American qualifiers to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, a game La Pulga (The Flea) and his fans will remember for many years to come.
Messi's elevation to national team hero took a little longer than expected. His parents' decision to move him to Spain as a 13-year-old and his limited playing time during Germany 2006 undoubtedly contributed to this, as did operating in the shadows of higher profile internationals.
But all that is a thing of the past now. After Juan Riquelme's decision to retire from international football, new coach Diego Maradona opted to hand the country's No10 shirt to Messi, who more than matched the expectations that come with that mythical jersey.
"I said previously I'd didn't mind which shirt I played in but, coming from Diego, the No10 is very special. I'm very happy with this decision," said Messi after scoring one goal and creating two others in his side's 4-0 reverse of La Vinotinto.
The precise moment when his coach handed him the jersey was unceremonious but clearly symbolic. "He called me to one side in training and said he'd decided that I should be the one to wear it. For me it's wonderful, given all the history that's been associated with it," he added.
A fitting ovation
"I want the Monumental to erupt and for Messi to win a standing ovation." Though Maradona's many skills are not thought to include clairvoyance, his prediction at the pre-match press conference on Friday was to prove spot on.
In his new role as chief orchestrator Messi was a touch imprecise in the opening minutes, even if they did contain a couple of flashes of brilliance that hinted at things to come. Growing in confidence as the game went on, the 21-year-old opened the scoring after an exquisite one-two with Carlos Tevez, before laying on another goal and almost grabbing his second with a run and shot of the highest order.
"How good would it be to have him at that level all the time? Just watching him play is real pleasure. If that one near the end had gone in, we should have all left the stadium and paid to come back in again," Maradona said afterwards of his star man, who received his first standing ovation from the ever-demanding Albiceleste faithful.
"They have applauded me before, but this time it was more marked as it was like a party out there - the game, the level we were playing at, the presence of Diego. You couldn't ask for more," said the player whose face adorned the front of his country's newspapers the following day.
The number game
Messi made his senior Argentina debut in very inauspicious circumstances on 17 August 2005 against Hungary, earning his one and only red card just minutes after coming off the bench. Yet this rare blemish did not interrupt his international career for long, and La Pulga now has 36 senior caps and 12 goals to his name. His record in Buenos Aires is even more impressive, the player having won five and drawn two of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers he has played in there, netting four times in the process.
"In our own minds we believe we'll be in South Africa. Yes we know there's still a long way to go but we're confident we'll get there. We've even spoke about how beautiful it'd be to win the Trophy itself. Hopefully we can do that with Diego," Messi added.
Now with the famous No 10 shirt on his back - the same number Maradona wore with distinction for Argentina and Barcelona in his time - Messi can set his sights on emulating some of the achievements of his illustrious coach. For all of that, he reminded everyone of his humility and values when asked after Saturday's game if he had any plans for his first No10 jersey. "Yes," he answered immediately, "I'm going to give this one to my mum."