Leadership (Abuja)

Africa: Will South Africa 2010 Be Messi's World Cup?

Abuja — Lionel Messi is one of the finest players ever to have played the game. At just 22 years of age, he has achieved more at club level than Maradona, Ronaldo da Lima, Luis Figo, Ronaldinho and even Zidane.The only blemish on his impressive resume is the World Cup trophy.

Going into the World Cup in South Africa as the best player in the world will weigh heavily on the shoulders of young Messi, who will turn 23 during The World Cup. He will turn 23 on June 24.

In the 50's and 60's, Pele held the world hostage winning 3 World Cup titles. At the 1982 World Cup Paolo Rossi was the outstanding player. Then came Mexico 86 and Diego Maradona burst into the scene and took the world by storm, not forgetting his two memorable goals against England; the first goal was controversial as the replays showed Maradona scored the goal with his hands but the second goal is regarded as the best goal ever scored in a World Cup.

Maradona dominated again in Italia 90 and nearly won the World Cup again but lost narrowly to Germany by a lone goal. After Maradona, Roberto Baggio and Romario took over and were the star players in the World Cup in 1994. In France 1998, Ronaldo was expected to be the star of the tournament but Zidane's 2 goals in the final against Brazil made him the undisputed star of the tournament.

Ronaldo came back bigger and better with Brazil in Korea/Japan 2002 and won the World Cup scoring 8 goals in the tournament. Germany 2006 came and it was supposed to be the World Cup that Ronaldinho would stamp his mark on the world stage but he failed to deliver. Canavarro emerged the best player due to Italy's defensive excellence.

In 2010 World Cup, all eyes will be on Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Ribery and Fernando Torres to shine, but out of this bunch, Lionel Messi is expected excellence to be a huge star at the World Cup.

Lionel Messi began playing football at a young age and his potential was quickly identified by Barcelona. He left Rosario-based Newell's Old Boys Youth Team in 2000 and moved with his family to Europe, as Barcelona offered treatment for his growth hormone deficiency. Making his debut in the 2004-05 season, he broke the La Liga record for the youngest footballer to play a league game and also the youngest to score a league goal.

Major honours soon followed as Barcelona won the La Liga in Messi's debut season and won a double of the league and Champions League in 2006. His breakthrough season was in 2006-07 when he became a first team regular, scoring a hat-trick in El Clásico and finishing with 14 goals in 26 league games. Perhaps his most successful season was the 2008-09 season, in which Messi scored 38 goals to play an integral part in Barcelona's treble-winning campaign.

Messi was the top scorer of the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship with six goals, including two in the final game. Shortly after, he became an established member of Argentina's senior national team. In 2006, he became the youngest Argentine to play in the FIFA World Cup and won a runners-up medal at the Copa América tournament the following year. In 2008 in Beijing, he won his first international honour, an Olympic Gold Medal, with the Argentina Olympic football team.

In 2009, Messi inspired Barcelona to six titles scoring 38 goals. Theirry Henry, his teammate, said Messi had an exceptional season but Messi went beyond that and scored 47 goals in all competition last season with 13 assists, equalling Ronaldo da Lima's record of 1996 in Barcelona. In all, he has scored 88 league goals in 144 matches for Barcelona.

At 22, he has won everything a player can win at club level, including winning personal honours like the Ballon d'Or Balloon door and FIFA World Player of the Year. Messi has often been criticised for failing to replicate his club form for Argentina. In Barcelona, he plays behind the duo of Iniesta and Xavi - considered to be the best midfield pair in the world. He is often given that free role in Barcelona and plays as a withdrawn center forward. But in the national team, Maradona plays Messi as a winger and playmaker and this has limited his abilities, but maybe the presence of Veron in the national team will offer Messi more opportunities to shine.

Argentina may have been underwhelming in qualification, but they have the kind of talents that are capable of lifting Argentina's first World Cup since 1986, a team that was led by Maradona.

The offensive options at the manager's disposal are scary, with attacking players like Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito and Carlos Tevez in addition to Messi.

Scoring should not be too much of an issue for this team, while defensive-minded midfielder, Javier Mascherano, will provide toughness in the center of the pitch.

Veteran defenders, Martin Demichelis, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Heinze will play in front of goalkeeper Sergio Romero, although there were a few curious omissions from Maradona's team.

Veterans, Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso were left off the provisional squad, despite the fact that Zanetti is the all-time leader in caps with 136 and both players have been integral parts of Inter Milan's successful campaign.

The team couldn't have asked for a more favorable draw than the one they received that saw them placed in Group B along with Greece, Nigeria and South Korea.

If Messi lifts the World Cup in South Africa, he will arguably be the best player ever to play the game of football. So the questions is: can Messi do it? Only time will tell.

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