Four years ago, Lionel Messi had the misfortune to look on from the substitutes' bench as Argentina were eliminated from the FIFA World Cup™, defeated on penalties by hosts Germany. Despite his tender age of 19, few doubted at that moment that La Pulga (The Flea) would, at some point in the future, get an opportunity to truly shine on football's greatest stage. It was simply a matter of time.
Today, as he celebrates his 23rd birthday in South Africa, Messi appears to have banished those painful memories for good, just as he has done with the criticism accusing him of performing better for his club than for his country. Back home, nobody doubts any more the major role that Diego Maradona has given the Barcelona player within his ever-improving team, as it has transformed him into Argentina's undisputed driving force. And in handing the dribbling dynamo the captain's armband for the match against Greece, Maradona gave him the honour of becoming La Albiceleste's youngest-ever skipper. Not surprisingly, Messi has already demonstrated in convincing style that he is ready to accept the responsibility that comes it.
Thinking with his feet
Even Messi himself has acknowledged he now offers more of a physical presence on the pitch, demanding the ball without lowering his head and standing his ground against bigger, stronger opponents. However, it is in his reading of the game that he has made the most significant progress. Asked why he appeared to be playing slightly deeper against Greece than in previous matches, he replied: "I had a man on me the whole game, so I tried to move him around a bit, drag him out to the wing so that the midfield didn't get too cluttered and there was more space for my team-mates to take advantage of. That way, I also had enough room to create one-on-ones."
Another sign of Messi's development is his measured reaction to the dry spell in front of goal that he has experienced so far at the FIFA World Cup, an unusual turn of events for a player accustomed to regularly hitting the back of the net. "I'm not worried about it – obviously I'd prefer them to go in, but it's not a big deal. What's important is that we keep playing well and that the team wins. With a bit of luck, I'll score against Mexico in the last 16," he said with a smile.
Maradona did not show the same type of composure when discussing his star playmaker's run of bad luck after the 2-0 win over Greece. "The fact that Messi didn't score is incredible. He hits a great shot against the post, the inside of the post, and somehow instead of going in, it rebounds out. I kind of belly-flopped to the ground at that moment, but I actually felt like diving head first. In fact, if there'd been a swimming pool in front of me, I would have done."
Show of support
Humour aside, Maradona's choice of captain for the match was a serious message of support for the young marvel, rather than a one-off early birthday present. As usual, the Argentina coach could not resist adding some drama to proceedings, hinting at his decision without fully confirming it at his pre-match press conference. "I took a trip to Barcelona to tell him not to worry. And now his time has come. On Sunday, when I told him what I told him, he got very emotional. It's a wonderful thing. But you will only find out what the 'thing' is tomorrow, when we take to the field."
Messi follows in the footsteps of such legendary Argentina captains as Daniel Passarella, who wore the armband as a 25-year-old in the 1978 FIFA World Cup-winning side, or Maradona himself, who lifted the trophy in 1986 as skipper at the age of 26. The honour did not seem to exert any added pressure on Messi during the game. In fact, less than 48 hours before turning 23, many observers felt he took to the task like a natural leader. How did he feel about it? "The truth is that it was a very special match for me. Since I was given the news that I would be captaining the team, I've just been trying to deal with it calmly; the support of your team-mates is crucial, of course. It was a nice experience," Messi said.
Unless he makes a birthday wish that magically comes true, Messi will soon have to hand back the armband to Javier Mascherano for the last-16 clash with Mexico. But if recent events have shown anything, it is that Messi has a knack for making the right decisions. It would therefore be no surprise that, when it comes to picking a time and place for blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, he selects Soccer City Stadium on 11 July.