Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi is, without a shadow of a doubt, the man causing the biggest stir at this year's Men's Olympic Football Tournament. At the tender age of 21, the Barcelona attacking whirlwind has earned the respect and admiration of the fans, volunteers and even other competitors here at Beijing 2008. Indeed, the diminutive forward was even asked for a signed shirt by LA Lakers icon Kobe Bryant, to add to his enviable collection of sporting souvenirs.
Yet despite the media frenzy surrounding him, and being the player most in demand by the world's press over the past month, Messi seems immune to all the furore. As laid-back and humble as ever, the Rosario-born footballer gives off few signs of being just hours away from playing in an Olympic final. As the decisive match against Nigeria draws ever closer, the Barça starlet took time out to chat exclusively to FIFA.com about his current form, Saturday's showdown and his Olympic experience so far.
FIFA.com: Lionel, there was a great deal of speculation about your involvement in the Olympic Games. Yet, finally here you are, and just 90 minutes away from winning a gold medal. How would you rate the experience so far? Lionel Messi: It's just as I expected, very beautiful and special. As the days have gone gone by, I've been able to see for myself everything that people had spoken to me about before I came. I've experienced some wonderful things that I'll remember for the rest of my life. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so you have to make the most of every second.
Whatever happens against Nigeria, is there anything in particular that will live long in your memory?
Yes of course. The days we spent in the Olympic village were really nice. Everything we experienced there was new to us: being around the other athletes, seeing a lot of familiar faces and truly great sportsmen, and being all together made it really worthwhile. It's a great experience for any footballer.
You have been through just about everything over the last three years. Mentally speaking, how do you take all that on board?
To be honest, I try not to get carried away and more than anything else I'm very happy about everything I've been through. Over these past three years I've experienced some wonderful things and others that weren't so nice, although I always prefer to focus on the positive. I try to calmly enjoy every moment and always spend time with my people: my family and my friends from way back. They are the ones who supported me during the good times but also during the bad times, which is always more difficult.
Could you pick out one moment in particular that has had an impact on you over these past three years? Perhaps you have been able help your family out, or met someone famous who you never imagined you would?
It's a difficult question to answer, so many good things have happened to me! I've won titles, my family and friends all seem fine, what more could I ask for? Maybe I was a bit taken aback after meeting Kobe Bryant the other day. He came up and greeted me very warmly, it was a great moment for me. That really meant a lot to me.
Diego Maradona has also put in an appearance at these Games. What has his visit brought to the group?
For us, having Diego around is always great. He's cheering us on from up close and that means a lot to us. When you see him, it gives you a real lift. Let's hope we can win the gold for him.
Have you settled an old score after the semi-final win against Brazil?
Yes, we'd had a couple of games against them that hadn't gone at all well for us. We'd been hoping to be able to beat them and we were in the kind of form to do just that, but we never imagined we'd beat them so emphatically. It makes me feel very happy, everything turned out perfectly.
Including the fact that your friend Sergio Aguero got on the scoresheet...
Yes, it was such a joy to see him find the net. He really needed it because people were starting to question him, some were saying certain things that just weren't true. Fortunately he was able to score and shut a lot of people up. That's good for him.
Rumour and speculation do tend to abound at the highest level of the game. Does this get to you?
Yes, it gets to you when people tell lies or say things that you think are unfair. But it's out of our control and we can't do anything about it. We try to walk away and not get involved, but of course sometimes you do hear comments that upset you.
Can you tell us what you said to Ronaldinho when you embraced after the semi-final?
We exchanged greetings and I wished him well with his latest move [to AC Milan]. He'll have to start again from scratch with another team, so I wished him the very best. He deserves it. He's always been wonderful to me, and has helped me a lot.
Looking ahead to the final against Nigeria, many of the African players faced you and some of your team-mates in the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005. What do you remember about that game?
I have very fond memories of it as it was the culmination of an entire tournament - one that went very well for us and was a beautiful experience. I think that Saturday's game will be as hard or harder still.
The Nigeria coach, Samson Siasia, told us that 90 per cent of people view Argentina as favourites. Is that really the case?
It's true we're in good form, but there are no real favourites in a final, where anything can happen. If you believe the script, we shouldn't have any problems. However, we still have to produce it where it matters, out on the pitch with our football. That's the only thing we should be thinking about.
What would it mean to have an Olympic gold medal in your collection?
It would be something very special, because of everything I've mentioned: the significance of taking part in such a tournament, and the fact that you might never get the opportunity again. Winning a medal would be a unique souvenir of this whole experience. As I've said all along, it's always been my dream to win a gold medal.