Stage set for Messi to shine
Published 02/07/2010 | 13:44
Lionel Messi has the chance in the Green Point stadium tomorrow afternoon to do what Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and Brazil's Ronaldo have done at World Cups down the decades.
Against Germany in an eagerly anticipated quarter-final, he can make South Africa 2010 his own.
He can ensure that whenever anyone talks about the first World Cup on the African continent, the thought which comes immediately to mind is of a little Argentinian with the ball seemingly stuck to his left foot.
This World Cup needs such a memory.
So far it has been let down by Cristiano Ronaldo, whose spit into the camera at the end of Portugal's defeat to Spain just about summed up his surly attitude.
It has been let down too by Wayne Rooney, the real version of whom simply did not turn up for England.
To that list you can add Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, Franck Ribery - all big names of whom we expected so much. None have enhanced their reputation.
Among that lot Messi stands out like a shining light. He might not have scored for Argentina yet, but if you needed a role model for how a footballing superstar should behave, then Messi is your man.
In four matches he has created countless chances for himself and his team-mates. He has brought brilliant saves from goalkeepers and played a part in at least half of Argentina's 10 goals.
It is that unselfish work ethic, as much as his obvious skill, which stands him apart from the rest. That willingness to be a part of a star team, as opposed to being determined to be the undisputed star in a team.
Even so, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-scoring performance has so far eluded him.
His manager Maradona, whose own brilliance, as well as notoriety, will forever be aligned with Mexico 1986, believes he knows why.
Maradona said: "What is being done to Messi is a scandal. Whenever he gets the ball they kick him. They don't even look at the ball, they just kick him.
"I've lived what Messi is living now, they've always kicked me, but I need Messi to be respected, not kicked."
There is some validity in Maradona's claims, but then players with the ability to scythe through defences have always received robust attention.
Messi has not been treated unduly physically and the Germans are not a team of kickers. As we discovered against England they are a young, vibrant side whose movement is a work of art.
They have balance, with old heads such as Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose allied with dynamic, fast-maturing youngsters such as Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil.
Ozil has been the find of this tournament, a neat and tidy playmaker with a burst of pace and wonderful vision.
It makes for an intriguing quarter-final, a match which would have graced the final itself considering they are the two most fluid teams left in the tournament.
So who has the edge? It could come down to a simple equation. Argentina have the more dynamic attacking force with Messi and Carlos Tevez and the tournament's joint-leading scorer in Gonzalo Higuain.
Germany have the stronger defence. Solid and organised.
Germany have a manager in Joachim Low who is meticulous and efficient, but who has also injected a certain joie de vivre into the more customary mechanical ways of a footballing nation which has won three World Cups.
And Argentina have Maradona. Made out to be a coaching clown before the tournament, Maradona has been a revelation.
He is no tactical genius, that is obvious.
But where Fabio Capello inspired only introspection and angst in England's squad, Maradona has embraced the beauty and joy of this World Cup.
Hugs and kisses all round, enthusiastic support on the touchline, a rapport with his players which is crucial in the closeted confines of a five-week tournament.
Argentina have responded by playing with flair and freedom.
It is why I take Argentina to progress to the semi-finals and Messi to etch his talent like a golden hallmark on South Africa 2010.