Lionel Messi will never ever eclipse Diego Maradona in his homeland, even if Argentina win World Cup
The founders of the Church of Maradona, which believes there is but one true deity of football, are musing gravely over their empanadas in a sports bar in Rosario about why even here in Lionel Messi's home town, the little genius could never, ever eclipse Diego Maradona.
"Messi could be the heir, the inheritor to El Diego but he cannot be the God of football himself," declares Hernan Amez, as one of Maradona's signed Argentina jerseys hangs on the wall above him. "It's very difficult for Messi. If he wins they're going to love him; if they lose again, they're going to destroy him."
No pressure then! It was in 2006 that the Iglesia Maradoniana church was formed here in Rosario by Amez and his mate Alejandro Veron to allow 80,000 worshippers from all over the world to pay due homage to Maradona. Was it any coincidence, they then wondered, that here in the port town where the religion was created the quieter, less crazy 'son' of their God should materialise?
Now, surely, as the World Cup is launched on Thursday, it is his time, "the moment of truth" as Messi himself recognised in La Plata on Saturday after scoring in Argentina's last World Cup warm up against Slovenia.
While Amez laughs that a 95th-minute hand-ball winner by Messi against Brazil in the final might be the only thing he could do to top El Diego, even the Maradoniana fundamentalists accept that perceptions of Messi would change irrevocably if he were to emulate their idol's feat of 1986 by captaining and inspiring an Argentinian triumph.
A popular theory about the world's best footballer here has been that, unlike the incredible, volcanic passion akin to madness which forced a nation to fall headlong for Maradona, Messi has been a stranger to Argentina, the quiet outsider whose genius was honed as a teenager thousands of miles away in Spain, a son to admire from long distance on television but not to truly embrace.
Yet things have been changing. At Grandoli, the first club Messi ever played for as a comically, unstoppable four-year-old with a star-festooned top, David Treves, one of his first coaches, has previously been dismissive, suggesting that his old charge was no hero there because he never made an effort to come back to see the kids.
A young Messi at his first club, Grandoli
He has softened, though. "It's true it still upsets me that he never comes back. I was in touch with him personally at one point when he promised to come but he never has. You feel empty because it's because of these kids that you want his presence," says Treves, pointing to his alarmingly gifted under-eights, including his own boy, playing in a Sunday League game.
"Yet for all that, I do think the attitudes have changed towards Messi here in the last couple of years. Argentina fans consider him one of their own now in a way they never did before, they're learning to love him."
A tiny Messi (second from the right on back row), with his Grandoli team-mates who were a year older
Out on the pitch, a frizzy-haired kid scores and pulls off his shirt, wheeling away like the blokes he has seen on the telly. A crowd of a couple of hundred mums, dad and friends, cheer and clap. Here, in the shadow of grim, blackened tower blocks which constitute some of the city's toughest, drug-infested housing projects, football is fresh air.
It was here from the more salubrious but still rough-and-ready working class neighbourhood 15 blocks away that Messi's grandma Celia would bring him to play, just as she had done with his elder brothers Rodrigo and Matias.
Things get exaggerated when looking back through rose-tinted specs but Treves, showing off the comical picture of La Pulgita, the little flea, in a shirt two sizes too big for him while being dwarfed by his team-mates, swears: "That goal against Getafe for Barca where he slaloms past about six men and scores? Well, he would do that all the time here. From one goalmouth to the other."
So, where are the shrines to this brilliance? On Cristiano Ronaldo's home island of Madeira, he has a museum yet on the walls of Grandoli, zilch.
Vast images of the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Rosario's most famous son Che Guevara, yes, but Messi is invisible.
It is the same everywhere in a city that boasts thousands of images celebrating the scorching rivalry between its two clubs Central and Newell's Old Boys but none of its grandest old boy. Until, that is, right among the heart of his old slumbering La Bajada neighbourhood, you come to the first patch of grass he ever played on, now a walled field with graffiti-strewn love messages on one side and three vast paintings of Messi on the other. It is a fairly new creation, which sprang up in the last couple of years; here, at last, you feel you have found the place where adoration for Messi is unconditional.
Next to a little shrine of 'Gauchito' Gil, the Argentine Robin Hood-like folk hero famed for helping the needy, kids are playing a five-a-side here with short wooden sticks for goalposts. Just a couple of hundred yards from Messi's childhood home at 525 Estado de Israel, they ignore your presence, having become inured to the Messi pilgrims.
Messi's childhood home at 525 Estado de Israel in Rosario
An old neighbour, Jose Luis Manicabale, who thinks of Messi as the younger brother he never had, laughs that if he were to come back here now, as he does on occasions because "your first home is always where you store your happiest memories", the kid he always considered as their little footballing mascot would probably join in.
Outside the two-storey house, shuttered and a little shabby, which Messi's dad Jorge built by hand and which the family have never sold despite having relocated to posher homes elsewhere in the city, Manicabale answers the amateur psychologists who say Messi still returns here only because he is trying to make up for the childhood he lost by giving his all to Barcelona.
"I don't believe he comes back to change anything because I don't think he ever really left. He's always been here in our hearts and us in his, I believe. He hasn't changed," says Manicabale. Except there is no longer any kid around these parts who can reprise Messi's amazing old party piece, laughs next door neighbour Luis Montenegro; that is, booting the ball as high in the air as possible and then trapping it with eerie, perfect stillness on the top of his foot.
If anything, Messi returns to Rosario more often than ever now. On the last free weekend during the Argentina training camp in Buenos Aires, 300km south of the town they say marks the gateway to the Pampas, he flew in by private jet with fellow Rosarino Angel di Maria, generating front page news in the local paper.
A mural, painted by a local artist, has sprouted within the last two years on the wall surrounding the first grass pitch where Messi played
It is sanctuary, in theory. Madness, though, is never far away. A few weeks ago while breakfasting with his partner Antonella and their son in the trendy new cafe, VIP, that the Messis have opened on one Rosario's smarter streets alongside the Parana river, he obliged an autograph-seeking customer.
Apparently, he had signed a picture of the World Cup underneath the scribbled words "Prometo Traerla" "I promise to bring it (back)". When a journalist got wind of this, believing Messi himself had scrawled the vow, it caused a national frenzy that he had supposedly made the vow that Argentina was desperate to hear. The silly season took hold until the autograph hunter revealed a bit red-faced that it wasn't Messi, but him, who had written it.
The episode, though, offered a feeling for Argentina's desperation for him to succeed and end their 21-year trophy drought since their 1993 Copa America win in Ecuador and the popular idea that Messi's indifferent end-of-season form for Barca was because he had his mind on the World Cup grows apace here.
At the Monumental and La Plata in his warm up games, he certainly looked energised for his national team in the electric manner which seemed to desert him at the end of La Liga season.
"I don't believe it myself but in the last month, everybody here has been saying he's been taking care of himself because he wanted to be injury-free and have no limitations in Brazil," Dr Diego Schwarzstein, the endocrinologist who discovered the nine year-old Messi's growth problem and oversaw the hormone treatment to correct it, explains in his downtown surgery.
Famously, Newell's, Messi's senior club in Rosario, eventually rejected paying for the expensive corrective treatment, a decision which pushed the family towards Barcelona and which now makes them look like the mob who turned down the Beatles. That, says Dr Schwarzstein, a big Newell's fan, would be unfair; they could not be blamed for making their decision in the teeth of Argentina's economic crisis.
What if Messi had not had the treatment, though? The doctor, who still sees a lot of his old patient on his regular trips to Barcelona, shrugs: "He would have been very, very short, maybe between 1.50m (just under 5ft) and 160cm (5ft 3in) so could he have been a pro footballer? I don't know but he is so good maybe the answer is yes!"
He once told a fretful nine-year-old that he could make him taller than Maradona but he did not know whether he could make him better. Now he is convinced. "Not only is he taller; maybe he's better too. Leo protests 'no, no!' if I say that but I think he is the best we've ever seen.
"The difference between them is one of their personality. The football public here loves the big characters who insult people, argue, get completely passionate. We call them smoke sellers, players like Maradona and (Diego) Simeone whose histrionics roused the people. But that's not Leo. He just plays football."
Yes, better than anyone. At 25, Maradona, the greatest of the smoke sellers, won the World Cup with one left foot and one left hand. At 26, Messi is ready, with one left foot and just one dream left. Then, smiles the Maradonianan disciple Amez, "he will be able to touch the stars" and someone else can go forth and found the Church of Lionel.