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Messi is the world's best, but he's a stranger at home

The prospect of the world's best footballer playing in their colors at the World Cup is one a number of Argentina fans are not very excited about. Lionel Messi has not yet earned his countrymen's love.

Lionel Messi in Argentina colours in 2006

On top of the world - but not with his national team

At age 13, Lionel Messi's football career looked ready for the scrap heap. In the youth team of Newell's Old Boys, in his home town of Rosario, Argentina, Messi's immense talent was there for all to see - but he was just too small.

He suffered from a growth hormone deficiency and was only 140 centimeters tall (4' 6"). Neither Messi's parents nor the club could afford the costly treatment needed to help him reach a normal height.

To the rescue came FC Barcelona. The Catalan giant offered Messi a place in its academy, and paid for his treatment - daily injections in both legs for four years. In October 2004, the 16-year-old, now measuring 169 centimeters (5' 6"), became the youngest ever Primera Division debutant. Six months later and he got his name on the score sheet for the first time. Now, over 80 goals later, the forward is the reigning World Footballer of the Year.

Flattering comparisons

Like every bright young Argentinian prospect, Lionel Messi was tagged "the new Maradona" at any early age. Unlike the rest (Ariel Ortega, Andres D'Allesandro, Carlos Tevez, others - take your pick), Messi is living up to the billing.

In the 2008-09 season, Barcelona won every competition they entered. The domestic double became a treble after victory in the Champions League, with Messi heading in the second goal in the final against Manchester United. For a footballer who is not an out-and-out striker, his record of nearly 40 goals for the season was incredible. The beauty of many of those goals, and his all-around contribution to the team, made the European and World player of the year crowns for 2009 an inevitability.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring the third of four goals against Arsenal

Messi shows he's Barca through-and-through after scoring the third of four against Arsenal

In 2010, after he scored four goals to single-handedly destroy Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-final, still weightier labels accrued. "We must give fooball a new name," acclaimed one Spanish reporter. "Let's call it Messi!"

The man himself was having none of it. "I must still improve," says the 22-year-old. "I want to be a player who can do anything."

Like Maradona. One goal, in April 2007 against FC Getafe, confirmed their likeness. Starting with the ball inside his own half, he ran at pace towards goal, beating six opponents before finishing effortlessly. It was almost a direct replica of Maradona's 1986 World Cup quarter-final goal against England, awarded the goal of the century. Messi's low center of gravity and ability to change direction while running with the ball at speed were also the hallmarks of his compatriot.

A different colored shirt

The form Messi has shown in the blue-and-garnet of Barcelona has, though, not been replicated in the sky-blue-and-white shirt of Argentina. He was sent off during his international debut in 2005.

Although he only turned 19 during the tournament, a great deal was expected of Messi at World Cup 2006. But he only played three games in Germany, and wasn't used off the bench as Argentina fell to the hosts in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out. Barcelona's 4-3-3 formation suits him perfectly, but Argentina's coach in the early part of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Alfio Basile, struggled to find a system that would get the best out of him.

Lionel Messi playing for Argentina during a Copa America defeat to Brazil in 2007

Times haven't been so good for Messi in an Argentina shirt

Then, by fateful irony - or perhaps complete inevitability from Lionel Messi's point of view, the man with whom he is so often compared became the man whose job it is to get the best out of him. Diego Maradona was appointed Argentina national coach in November 2008 and led the team to qualification for South Africa, but only just.

It's easy to see why such a coach-and-player, legend-and-heir-apparent relationship could be unhealthy for Messi, although the grounded young man doesn't appear to have suffered from developing inside Maradona's shadow to date.

But while Maradona is close to a national saint, Messi's popularity in his home country struggles to match that of even his current teammates. Many regard his underwhelming efforts for the national side as evidence that, having moved to Spain at such an early age, he's not really Argentinian anymore.

While the rest of the world waits for Lionel Messi to stamp his imprint all over the World Cup, the fans he needs to prove himself to are his own countrymen in their replica shirts - with other players names on the back.

Author: Andreas Ziemons / tms
Editor: Matt Hermann

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