Behold the new Maradona

The image of Maradona slaloming past the entire England defence to score his team’s second goal in that quarter-final showdown in Mexico has remained one of the enduring sporting images of our time.

The world is divided over who between Maradona and Pele is the greatest football player of all-time with the younger generation rooting for the Argentine and the older generation backing the Brazilian legend.

Argentina has been waiting for the next Maradona since their beloved captain waved goodbye to international football ‘ though in disgrace ‘ at the World Cup finals in the United States in ’94.

A number of players have emerged on the scene, notably Ariel Ortega and Pablo Aimar ‘ who have been christened the New Maradona over the past decade.

But both have failed, under the weight of expectations, to live up to the billing and the football mad people of Argentina have been left with little option but to wait for the real deal.

Enter Lionel Messi.

The 18-year-old attacking midfielder is the first player to be endorsed by Maradona himself as the heir to his throne.

The annointment came after Messi pushed himself into the hearts of the globe’s football fans with a dazzling show in a Champions League tie against English champions Chelsea.

“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football and his name is Messi,” Maradona told reporters in Argentina.

“Messi is beautiful to watch ‘ my kind of player in our blue and white jersey.

“He’s a leader and is offering classes in beautiful football. He has something different to any other player in the world.

“Messi is the best player in the world, along with Ronaldinho. I see him as very similar to me.”

Maradona was in Germany last week when Messi finally made his World Cup debut for Argentina and played a part in a 6-0 demolition of Serbia and Montenegro.

The Argentine legend could be seen cheering hysterically from the stands as Messi was introduced in the second half.

The teenage star turned on the style, creating the fourth goal for Hernan Crespo and then scoring his own in the rout.

The tributes have duly followed a special player with a special talent.

“Argentina have sought a new Diego Maradona ever since the demise of their former captain and inspiration more than 10 years ago,” read the website.

“Talented players labelled the “new Maradona”, such as Ariel Ortega and Pablo Aimar, have failed to inspire Argentina to go beyond the quarterfinals since 1990.

“Lionel Messi could be different, though, and that is what Argentines are hoping so that they can bury the bitter memory of the team’s first-round elimination in Asia four years ago.

“Juan Roman Riquelme, who like Messi was born on June 24 but is nine years his senior, is regarded as the fulcrum of Jose Pekerman’s team but, a one-time “new Maradona” himself, he would be happy to play the Jorge Burruchaga role to Messi’s Maradona 1986 vintage.

“Messi enjoys several parallels with Maradona, such as leading Argentina to World Youth Cup victory, an international debut as a teenager against Hungary and playing for Barcelona.

“He made his mark quickly and emphatically on the biggest European stage and at a tender 18 years of age, showing lethal pace, brilliant close control, incisive passing and an eye for goal in Champions League appearances for the Spanish giants.”

Messi’s fan club is not only consigned to South America and Europe but also across the entire globe.

Football observers believe his global appeal stems from the fact that he is different from the usual football superstars.

After all Messi did not cross the Atlantic into Spain to look for a professional football career.

His parents went to Spain in search of a better job that could help them pay the medical fees for their teenage son who had a hormone deficiency.

That is why he has constantly paid tribute to his parents for where he is right now.

“Things have gone really quickly but my family have always been there for me,” he told the Gulfnews website.

“Playing in the Netherlands (at the FIFA World Youth Championship), winning the tournament, getting a regular game for Barcelona, the fans’ support . . . it just all seems too much.

“It feels wonderful when people believe in you and even more so when you’re talking about a true great like Diego.

“But I don’t take it as added pressure, quite the opposite in fact, it motivates me even more.

“I can’t get my head around the way things have been built up back in my country and especially in my home city of Rosario.

“I was there doing some rehab work and the welcome I got was out of this world. I’d love to be able to give them something back.

“Argentina have great players and a great team that’s good enough to go far in Germany. Naturally, we’re dreaming of winning the Cup, but we’re taking things one step at a time,” said.

Who is Lionel Messi?

He was born in Argentina and in 1995 started his football career at his hometown team Newell’s Old Boys at the age of 13.

He was diagnosed as suffering from a hormone deficiency condition and since his parents and his club could not afford the fees, the family crossed the Atlantic to Spain.

There he joined Barcelona, playing for the Under-14 team and making spectacular progress within the junior ranks as his talent shone brightly.

No junior player has ever made such a lightning transition at Barcelona.

“In the 2003-2004 season, when he was still only 16, Messi made his first team debut in a friendly with Porto that marked the opening of the new Dragao stadium,” reads the official Barcelona website.

“The following championship-winning season, Messi made his first appearance in an official match on October 16, 2004, in Barcelona’s derby win against Espanyol at the Olympic Stadium (0-1).

“With several first team players seriously injured, the services of several reserve team players were called upon and Messi became a regular feature of Bar’a squads.

“On May 1, 2005, he became the youngest player ever to score a league goal for FC Barcelona ‘ against Albacete when Messi was only 17 years, 10 months and 7 days old.

“At the Under-20 World Cup in Holland, Messi not only won the title with Argentina, but was also the leading goalscorer and was voted best player in the tournament.

“Aged 18 years, he had become one of the hottest properties in the world game. Shortly after, he made his first full international appearance in a friendly against Hungary.

“In September 2005, Messi was given an improved and extended contract until 2014.”

Messi has dual citizenship which means that he could have played for Spain.

He was offered the opportunity but declined and instead chose to play for his fatherland.

But is Messi the New Maradona?

While there is general consensus that he is brilliant there are some doubting Thomases.

And one of them is former England international Gary Lineker.

The hitman was in the English team that played against Argentina in 1986 when Maradona scored that great goal.

Lineker scored for England in that game but ended on the losing side of a great match.

He was in Argentina recently where he conducted an exclusive interview with Maradona for the BBC.

“Diego has been the best player without a doubt, better than Pele,” said Lineker.

“He could do things with his left foot that nobody else could do.

“The second goal that Maradona scored against England in Mexico was the best goal ever.

“That was the first time in my career that I almost applauded on the pitch something the opposition had done because it was a really good goal.

“If it hadn’t have been such an important game I would have applauded it ‘ it’s really impressive to score a goal like that.

“Diego scored the most famous goals in football history.

The first one, the ‘hand of God’, I didn’t see because I was over the other side of the pitch but the second one was the best goal ever.”

But what about Messi?

“We’ve heard lots of times that Messi is the new Maradona, but it is a very big claim for such a young player,” said Lineker.

“The truth is that he has the potential to be a great, great player.

“Another Diego will be very difficult to find, but you never know.

“Messi needs more experience, but he is among the best players in the world, with Rooney and Ronaldinho.

“We’ve heard lots of times that Messi is the new Maradona but it is a very big claim for such a young player.

“Comparisons to Maradona are premature. I agree Messi is good but has yet to prove himself in the World Cup. This could be fun.”

The world will soon judge for itself whether Messi is really the New Maradona.

He has had a good start to the World Cup campaign and he will certainly have more World Cups to play in his career.

What is clear, though, is that he has a lot to prove if he is going to charm the world the way Diego did.

June 2006
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