FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006

FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006

10 December - 17 December

FIFA Club World Cup 2006

The new messiah

His eyes widened and a terrified look consumed his features as he slowly realised who the voice belonged to on the other end of the mobile phone. "Si, gracias," he managed to mutter as he attempted to steal away from a pack of fascinated reporters in Utrecht. "Gracias Diego."

Long before the 18-year-old's man-of-the-match performance for Barcelona against Chelsea in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League last 16 encounter at Stamford Bridge, Lionel Messi had been described as the most exciting talent the game had seen in years. His performances for Argentina at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 were so far above his peers that the prediction of greatness, even from Diego Maradona, never came so easy.

Messi does not exactly fit the role of superstar - but then again neither did that left-footed player he has most been compared to. Small, bow-legged with a constantly drooping head, the shy teenager comes alive on the football field and, above all, when the ball is at his feet.

Dutch delight
In Holland, fans watched as a pale-faced, weak-looking, scruffy-haired forward, cut inside from the left touchline at devastating speed with a series of runs rarely witnessed outside of computer games. Few teams' success have been so dependent on one player. Messi, who was inexplicably left out of Argentina's first match - a 1-0 defeat to the USA, ended the tournament topscorer with six goals including the two in the final. Most of them followed mazy dribbles. It was kids against men except Messi, two or three years younger than most, was the kid.  Fearing their player, who had turned 18 during the finals, might be approached, Barcelona's technical director Txiki Beguiristain was dispatched to Utrecht to present the birthday boy with an attractive, if hastily put together, deal to keep the forward at the Nou Camp until 2014. The buy-out clause (the money an interested party must pay Barcelona) is reported to be 150m euros. The Argentine's performances, it seemed, had even taken the club that had brought him over to Spain by surprise.

That long trip was when Messi was five years younger and 30 centimetres shorter (1.4m, 4ft 6in). Born in Rosario in the same Pampas city that Che Guevara was brought up, young Lio's talent was obvious to all at his club Newell's Old Boys. His slight stature though was a major stumbling block. The boy had been diagnosed with hormone deficiency in his bones and needed growth treatment if he was to fulfil early promise. Clubs in Argentina, hit by the country's financial collapse, could not afford the $1,000 a month it would cost for the injections.

Alerted to the player's unique talent, Carlos Rexach, former player and Johan Cruyff's number two, crossed continents to take a look.

"I snapped him up there and then," Rexach, who was then sporting director, said. "In fact, as a symbolic gesture, I got him to sign on the back of a serviette."

So the Messi family was brought over to Barcelona where little Lio gradually grew up starring in the Catalan club's youth teams until October 2003 when he made his first team debut at the age of 16 years, four months and 23 days against a Porto side coached by a certain Jose Mourinho.

Because of his frail physique, his genius and because other promising youngsters - Messi's team-mates Francesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique (now playing for Arsenal and Manchester United) - had been enticed away, Barcelona kept a protective eye over their budding star. When asked how good the player was a year ago, coach Frank Rijkaard paused for so long the silence spoke a thousand words. By then Messi was making headlines back home in Argentina where he was carrying the youth team through South American qualifying with a bundle of brilliant strikes.*  * From striking gold to seeing red

Even after bagging the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe awards in the Netherlands, Messi still had to win a permanent place in the Barca side. While the club were managing to get him Spanish citizenship, the Argentine Association (AFA) made sure he would represent his country of birth at senior level. Brought on by coach Jose Pekerman in the 64th minute of an August friendly against Hungary, Messi made an inauspicious start. Two minutes later he was sent off for raising an elbow at an opponent after being brought down.

But aside from timidity, Messi's character has never been a major concern. Under the guidance of a fraternal Ronaldinho, the Argentine has won a place in the Spanish champions' side on the right side of attack.

"Messi sees Ronaldinho hugging the left touchline and follows his example on the right," said Eusebio Sacristan, who is part of Rijkaard's coaching staff. "He knows he'll be less involved in the centre but when he comes inside, it will be to great effect."

Although Ronaldinho stole the glory in the season-defining 3-0 victory against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in November, it was Messi's early incursions that day that softened up the defence. And those that have witnessed his consistently high-level performances since then will not have been surprised by his display at Stamford Bridge in the 2-1 win on 23 February. The bigger the game, the better the 18-year-old seems to play.

"It's nice that people are talking about me but I've done nothing in football yet," said Messi modestly after his display in the first leg. "We haven't won the league yet, not even the tie against Chelsea so we mustn't relax."

Messi's hunger for success is refreshing. Unlike another Argentine performer for Barcelona, Javier Saviola, four years before, there seems little doubt that he will wear the famous albiceleste jersey at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.

Maradona's list of successors has become almost as famous as the player himself. Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar, Juan Roman Riquelme and Saviola will probably have received the ring in their day. "I now know who will occupy my place in Argentinian football," came the ominous words. "His name is Lionel Messi."

This time he may have found a player big enough to fit the bill.

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