Three years on from his definitive explosion onto the world football scene, Argentina's Lionel Messi needs little introduction. The inspiration behind his country's triumph at the FIFA World Youth Championship 2005 and one of the first names on the team sheet at club and international level, the player nicknamed La Pulga (The Flea) does not even turn 21 until later this month.
Next on the agenda for the Rosario-born superstar are the Albiceleste's qualifying clashes against Ecuador and Brazil, and the opportunity for Alfio Basile's men to take a decisive step towards appearing at another FIFA World Cup™ finals. With this exciting double-header just days away, Messi spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his current form, his hopes for South Africa 2010 and his experiences at Germany 2006.
'A unique experience'
Even for a man accustomed to appearing at planet football's biggest competitions, it quickly becomes clear that the FIFA World Cup holds a special place in Messi's heart. "I was fortunate enough to take part in Germany 2006 and it proved to be a unique experience. Not only did I celebrate my 19th birthday while I was there, but I had the opportunity to play against the best players in the world," says the Barcelona forward. "Even though we weren't able to go on and take the title, there just aren't words to describe having played and scored a goal against Serbia and Montenegro."
And should Argentina safely negotiate the South American Zone's notoriously difficult qualifying phase, they will have the chance to set the record straight after their quarter-final exit at the hands of the host nation two years ago. "We've got really high expectations for the tournament in South Africa, even though there are still a couple of years to go," Messi admitted. "We're building a very strong team, so it (reaching the finals) is currently one of the main challenges of my career."
"The qualifying process is very long and we've got time to get even better. We're second in the standings at the moment, so we can feel reasonably secure and confident that we'll qualify. We're getting stronger every day," says a player who was not even born at the time of Argentina's success at Mexico 1986. Has the time arrived for him to follow in the footsteps of Diego Armando Maradona? "It's a real honour to be compared with Diego, but there was and will only ever be one Maradona. Let's hope that I can match what he achieved with the national team. That would be a dream come true, and I work hard every day so I can achieve precisely that. It would be marvellous to win a third World Cup for my country."
Mission South Africa
Before they can turn their thoughts to lifting the famous Trophy once more, Messi and Argentina must ensure they continue their good start to the preliminary phase. Notwithstanding, the young Albiceleste can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of the competition on African soil. "It would be marvellous to play in a country like South Africa. I really like the fact that the World Cup can be held in a variety of continents and countries, and not just in Europe or the Americas."
That said, he still has much to learn about the country that could welcome him and his fellow Argentinians in 2010. "I don't know much about South African football yet, except for those footballers who have played for European clubs, but I know that the sport over there is constantly evolving," says the fleet-footed forward. "Unfortunately I couldn't make Barcelona's trip to South Africa last year, but I have noticed that their national team are technically very gifted. There's no doubt that hosting the World Cup will help them improve a great deal."
And how does he feel the Bafana Bafana will get on at the elite competition? "It's hard to say now how South Africa will get on in 2010, but let's hope they perform well," says the Barça idol. "If the host nation does well it's good for the tournament and boosts its popularity. Playing on home turf is very special, I'm sure they'll know how to make the most of it."
For Messi, however, his immediate priorities are the games against Ecuador and Brazil on 15 June and 18 June respectively. The latter match, to be played in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, could be a golden opportunity to get revenge on Dunga's men, 3-0 winners in the last two meetings between the South American superpowers.
And does Messi believe the Albiceleste can return the favour on their arch-rivals' home patch? "Brazil have beaten us twice in a row and we're all keen to pay them back for that. We've got to beat them once and for all, the moment has arrived. If I put on a good display then great, but the priority is a win for the team that would smooth our path towards the World Cup."
And as far as neutral football fans are concerned, any result that helps ensure Lionel Messi will grace the pitches of South Africa in two years' time can only be a good thing.