2010 FIFA World Cup: Lionel Messi Looks To Make Impact on the Biggest Stage

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2010 FIFA World Cup: Lionel Messi Looks To Make Impact on the Biggest Stage

The irony of Lionel Messi is impossible to ignore.

As a boy, he was The Dwarf. That wasn't just his nickname, but the diagnosis by doctors convinced that he would never reach normal size. Even earlier in life, he was The Flea, seemingly so brittle that his mother had to be talked into letting him play soccer with the other 5-year-olds—and only then because the organizer promised to position him near the touchline so that if he got hurt and started crying, she'd be nearby.

Today, no ruler is needed to measure Lionel Messi. Lionel Messi is The Ruler.

The man wearing Argentina's famed No. 10 shirt is storming into the World Cup in South Africa apparently bent on testing the adage that no player is bigger than his game. When the tournament begins June 11, Messi won't be up against the best defenders on the planet as much as he will the greatest players to walk it, ever.

Thanks to treatments that helped him grow to 5'7", it's a foregone conclusion that he's the best player today, no matter that he's only 22 and hardly proved anything while playing for his country.

Messi's recent performances with his club, Barcelona, have jostled even pundits weary of quadrennial claims that the next Pele or next Maradona has arrived. To listen to the roar, you wonder how long before some ask: Is Messi really the next Pele, the next Maradona ...or were they the prequels to Messi?

One former Argentina coach was so taken by a Messi goal that he recommended they immediately close down the stadium. The current Argentina coach, who happens to be Diego Maradona, says Messi "is playing kick-about with Jesus."

Religious metaphors, royal metaphors. They're just as outrageous as defenders trying to match Messi's speed, ball-handling and ability to read the game and create goals for himself and teammates alike. His size might even be an advantage, creating a low center of gravity that enables him to zig while defenders zag.

"The world kneels at the feet of Messi," wrote Marca, a newspaper in Spain. "First it was Pele, then Maradona—now welcome the new king."

El Mundo Deportivo, another Spanish paper: "There is only one God: Messi."

Make that "Messi-ah." That's what some fans and announcers call him.

Unlike his coach, Messi isn't one to boast. Fresh in his mind is what it took to arrive at this point, including prescribed daily growth hormone injections costing $1,000 to $1,500 per month.

Sensing Messi might be a prodigy, his boyhood club in Argentina picked up the tab until the economy collapsed and Barcelona stepped in, uprooting the family to Spain in 2000.


Loyalties questioned

Rising to become the best in the world, and the fishbowl existence it entails, makes unwinding a challenge. Messi says he has "never been one to go out much," although he has, on occasion, ducked out for a few days on South Beach.

"He's not what I would call flamboyant," says Eddie Rodger, the longtime Broward-based soccer entrepreneur and promoter with KICS International. "He likes to have fun, but what kid at his age doesn't? He is humble and very, very patriotic. He bleeds blue and white."

That's the sticking point for some Argentines, who point to the extensive time he has spent in Spain and ask if he isn't more Catalan than Argentine.

"I get angry that they say I don't feel pride in the Argentine shirt," Messi told the Spanish paper El Pais.

Hollywood's Pedro Magallanes, who played for Argentina's national team and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, mocks media speculation questioning Messi's patriotism.

"Blah, blah, blah," Magallanes says. "It's all these stupid things. People in Argentina love Messi."

If Messi continues his recent pace when the World Cup begins in South Africa, it'll be unanimous. Just as Messi scoots around defenders as if they were traffic cones, he disposes of critics, such as those who said he couldn't score with his head (until he did) or couldn't score against British clubs (ditto).

"I would advise you not to question Leo," says Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, who saw Messi score 34 goals for his club, which won the Spanish League title.

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