2010 FIFA World Cup: Veron-Messi Relationship Holds Key for Argentina

John Tilghman Correspondent IJune 1, 2010

Lionel Messi is naturally a very shy and reserved young man who has not always fit in well with his teammates with the Argentina National Team.

During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, La Pulga was the youngest players in the squad and mainly kept to himself, socializing only with friend and former teammate at the Under-20 level, Oscar Ustari. 

A year later at the Copa America in Venezuela, Juan Sebastian Veron made his return to the Argentina setup after missing out on Germany 2006, and immediately began to try and integrate Messi into the group. 

Over the course of that tournament, there were notable signs of a change in Messi as he began to feel more comfortable with the Argentina side.

In an interview last season, Messi attributed his friendship with Veron as the reason he began to feel at home with the national team, while Veron has been compared to Messi's father in the national team on more than one occasion.

Just last month, he was asked again and responded: "I get along well with Leo...He was a timid and withdrawn kid who had to integrate into a team of people much older, and he did it without any problems. To me, he occupies a very important part in the group." 

Veron has also been a constant advocate of Messi in the Argentine press. As arguably the most high profile player plying his trade in Argentina, Veron became a bit of a spokesman at home for the many stars playing abroad who were labeled as mercenaries at times during Argentina's poor run to qualify for South Africa. 

La Brujita has also been a proponent of building the team around Messi, saying: "If he needs more company, then it is perfect that we play with two more strikers...We will try to make him feel like he does when he plays with Barca." 

The two giants of Argentina football have butted heads during Barcelona's dramatic extra-time victory over Estudiantes in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2009, thanks to Messi's winner. The relationship hardly suffered, and the two are now roommates with Argentina at the team bunker in Pretoria. 

"That was their decision, I had nothing to do with it," said Diego Maradona when asked about the room pairing, "...I love it because they get along very well." 

Maradona has often stressed how important the group spirit and unity were during Argentina's run to back-to-back World Cup Finals in 1986 and 1990, and it appears that El Pibe de Oro is building a similar harmony within the squad as team manager. 

Since arriving in South Africa, Argentina has trained behind closed doors and away from the spotlight of the often overly critical Argentine media, who have been throwing plenty of pressure on top of Messi during the run up to football's showcase event. 

Away from the spotlight, Messi and his teammates are beginning to build a quiet confidence, while the rest of the world's media has been going on about the outspoken Brazilians and Spaniards. 

Although Maradona has handed the press a few quality sound bites, he has kept the attention away from his players. They have been able to concentrate on nothing but football and the upcoming match with Nigeria, while also building the friendships Maradona knows can last a lifetime from his four World Cups with Argentina in the '80s and '90s. 

On the pitch, Veron plays an equally important role in Messi's happiness and productivity. Although the Estudiantes captain does not play as far up the pitch as he once did, Seba has one of the best passing ranges in world football. He also possesses the patience and experience to calm down his often more exuberant younger teammates, who often try to operate at full speed 100 percent of the time. 

"Veron is my Xavi. I want him to manage the team, to be my representative on the pitch, to speak to the kid (Messi)," Maradona said in an interview last month after announcing his preliminary squad of 30 players in World Cup contention. 

Veron may not have the movement of Xavi, but La Brujita will be content to let the ball do the work, and allow Messi, Angel Di Maria, and Gonzalo Higuain to do the running. In the recent friendly, Messi drifted inside to exchange passes with Veron as Argentina protected a lead against Germany.

Argentina fans will be hoping to see more of that on the field in South Africa when the tournament kicks off in 10 days' time.


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