Messi-ah needs World Cup success to rival Maradona
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 friend 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?
"We took a banner to the World Cup in Germany praising GOD AND THE MESSI-AH," Veron recalls. Sadly, the Messiah was left fermenting on the bench by Jose Pekerman in 2006, as Argentina crashed out in the quarter-final against Germany.
Ever since, they have been waiting in vain for the same sort of miracles in the Albiceleste shirt that Messi has delivered routinely for Barcelona, earning himself 21 trophies in the process.
Now, surely, as another World Cup rolls around, it is his time, "the moment of truth" as Messi himself recognised in La Plata last Saturday after scoring in Argentina's friendly against Slovenia.
While Amez laughs that a 95th-minute handball 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 which forced a nation to fall head over heels for Maradona, Messi has been a stranger to Argentina.
The common perception of him is as a 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 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.
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."
Out on the pitch, a frizzy-haired kid scores and pulls off his shirt, wheeling away like his television idols. 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.
Messi's family hailed from the more salubrious but still rough-and-ready working-class neighbourhood 15 blocks away, but it was here that Messi's grandmother Celia would bring him to play, just as she had done with his elder brothers Rodrigo and Matias.
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, remembers his talent only too well.
"That goal against Getafe for Barca where he slaloms past about six men and scores? Well, he would do that all the time here."
So, where are the shrines to this brilliance? On Cristiano Ronaldo's home island of Madeira, he has a museum constructed in his honour, yet at Grandoli there is nothing for Messi.
Instead, the walls are covered by vast images of the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Rosario's most famous son Che Guevara. 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 in the heart of his old 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.
The popular notion that Messi's indifferent end-of-season form for Barca was because he had his mind on the World Cup grows apace here.
In Argentina's warm-up games at the Monumental and La Plata, he certainly played in the electric manner which seemed to desert him at the end of the 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.
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 record producer who turned down the Beatles.
What if Messi had not had the treatment, though? The doctor, who still sees a lot of his old patient in 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.
The Argentina football public love the big characters who insult people, argue, get completely passionate. They call them smoke sellers, players like Maradona and Diego Simeone, whose histrionics roused the people.
Messi is ready to do it a different way. (© Daily Telegraph, London)