Argentina forward Lionel Messi believes that England number among the leading contenders to lift the FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa. Many people's favourites for the tournament, which starts two weeks today, are Spain and Brazil, but the 22-year-old puts Fabio Capello's side in the same category.
"I think that right now, the strongest sides going into the World Cup are Spain, England and Brazil," he told CNN International. "They had a strong, easy qualifying and are very tough."
Messi was a little more coy about his own side's chances. "Hopefully, it will be my World Cup, Argentina's World Cup and that we hit the ground running and play up to people's expectations and win the World Cup," he said.
Messi has had another stellar season with Barcelona, winning another La Liga title under Pep Guardiola and playing at a consistently high level which has seen him hailed as one of the greatest players in history. There is still a feeling in Argentina, however, that he does not reproduce that form at international level. Messi tries not to pay too much attention to that.
"People have an opinion and I respect it," he said. "I'm the first person who wants to do well with my national team and perform like I do with Barcelona. I know that this is a really good opportunity for me and I'm going to try to do it.
"They are different systems and different styles and everything. At Barcelona, Guardiola decided to use me more in the middle and that's when I had more touches on the ball and played more around the front of the area. And well, I've had the luck to be able to score more goals."
Messi said he and his Argentina team-mates were getting used to being coached by Diego Maradona, someone they idolised as youngsters. "At first, it was strange to have him as our coach," he said. "The truth is he was a little imposing. But afterwards, we started getting used to him and he's been our coach for a while, so now it's normal.
"Also, he's really close to the players, he's one of the guys, so there's no problem. Maradona has always been very nice to me. Even before he was our coach and I took my first steps as a professional. Now that I have him as a manager, he's even closer and gives me a lot more confidence than he did before."
Argentina are in Group B in South Africa, alongside Nigeria, Korea Republic and Greece. They open their campaign against Nigeria in Johannesburg on 12 June.