Messi rediscovering the joy of youth
Lionel Messi, no longer the forlorn figure of the South American qualifiers, might have been back with the under-20s such was his influence and sheer enjoyment in Argentinaâ€™s opening World Cup match.
Messiâ€™s demeanour and mood at Argentinaâ€™s World Cup base in South Africa is a world away from what it was at their training camp outside Buenos Aires during the qualifiers last year.
The warmth that was lacking as Messi, a genius for Barcelona but almost a passenger for Argentina, contemplated the criticism from his fellow Argentines over a perceived lack of commitment in the light blue and white stripes, has enveloped him at the University of Pretoria.
â€śHe is being spoilt,â€ť was the comment his mother Celia made to the sports daily Ole over the attention given to Messi by coach Diego Maradona, room mate Juan Sebastian Veron and the rest of the squad.
The Messi family and his girlfriend Antonella are staying in a rented house in a country club near the universityâ€™s sports complex where Argentina live and train and where they hope to celebrate his 23rd birthday next week with a place in the second round in the bag.
Messiâ€™s importance to the team was evident in Saturdayâ€™s 1-0 Group B win over Nigeria, the country he tore apart almost single-handedly in the 2005 World Youth Cup final in the Netherlands.
This dominance of a game is what Argentines, including Maradona, have wanted to see from Messi, having watched his brilliant performances for Barcelona on television all season.
The context was to be South Africa and the parallels with Maradona in Mexico in 1986 are there for those who believe Argentina can trace a similar path to the world title.
Messi is two and a half years younger than Maradona was then but he is also at his second World Cup and Argentina next face South Korea, the first team Argentina beat on their way to the crown in 1986.
Argentina may also meet Uruguay in the second round and England in the quarter-finals â€“ just as in 1986.
What matters to the young Messi, though, is to be at the centre of Argentinaâ€™s aspirations and Maradona has had the sense to realise their ambitions go hand in hand.
PHOTO: Argentina coach Diego Maradona ccelebrates his team’s win over Nigeria with Lionel Messi after the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen.