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TO PLAY BASKETBALL, IT HELPS TO BE TALL. TO PLAY FOOTBALL, IT HELPS TO BE BIG. LIONEL MESSI IS A WALKING, TALKING REMINDER THAT IN SOCCER, SIZE MAKES LITTLE OR NO DIFFERENCE—PROVIDED YOU'RE GOOD ENOUGH. WHICH might explain why Messi is so popular: Most of the world can relate to an athlete who, in street clothes, looks like someone's kid brother with a poor haircut. But give him boots and a ball, and he displays all the delicate touch and close ball control at full speed of...well, of the man who is now his coach with Argentina, Diego Maradona.
Messi is soccer stripped down to its essence: a man and a ball moving as one. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Maradona has anointed Messi as his heir. And just as Maradona was in the limelight from his early teens, so too has Messi grown up with the weight of expectations. At age 11, already a promising player on the junior squad of Newell's Old Boys in the city of Rosario, he was diagnosed with a rare growth-hormone deficiency that was treatable only at considerable expense. Two years later FC Barcelona agreed to pick up his medical expenses and moved the entire Messi family to Spain. Lionel's gifts and the coaching at Barça's legendary La Masia academy did the rest.
Now, at 22, with four seasons as a starter under his belt, Messi is arguably the greatest player on earth. Not only that, but in many ways he's the antidote to modern soccer, the link to a past in which individual creativity and technique trumped athleticism and tactical rigor. In a romantic sense, he's the triumph of man over system.
"You can tailor a formation to stop him, whether by man-marking or switching tactical assignments, but then one of two things can happen: either it wreaks havoc on your own team, because you've entirely changed the way you play, or he still beats you because he's that good," England coach Fabio Capello said earlier this season. Just ask Arsenal's defenders, on whom Messi scored a staggering four goals in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals on April 6.
Messi started his career wide on the right in Barcelona's 4-3-3 system, but it soon became obvious that this was like using a Ferrari to pick up the kids from school: It hardly exploited Messi's full potential. Maradona is on the same page when it comes to Argentina's use of its young superstar: The right flank is merely a starting point for Messi. He pops up everywhere, linking with midfielders, materializing behind the center forward, cutting inside from the left...and wherever he goes, he terrifies the opposition, forcing it to adjust.
That, in fact, could be his role with Argentina at the World Cup: luxury decoy. The Albiceleste has more than enough attacking talent with Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez; if opponents key on Messi, the others can do the damage. One play from the second leg of last season's Champions League semis neatly summed up what Messi can do. Deep into injury time, with Barça a goal down at Chelsea, he latched on to a stray ball on the left side of the penalty area; squared his shoulders toward the goal, sucking three defenders toward him; and laid the ball off to an unmarked Andrés Iniesta, who buried his shot in the back of the net. Barcelona went on to win the Champions League for the second time in Messi's brief career.
Between now and the World Cup you will hear plenty of commentators compare Messi and Maradona. But Messi lacks Maradona's bluster and sense of destiny. He doesn't carry teams on his back the way El Pibe did because, well, he hasn't had to. Not yet, anyway. But given Argentina's hiccups in qualifying, that could change quickly come summer.