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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Call it the thud heard across the Southern Cone.
Lionel Messi, the reigning FIFA Player of the Year, was practicing with the national team when he collided with a teammate. The forward crumpled to the ground – taking the World Cup championship dreams of an entire soccer-crazed nation with him.
But don't cry for Messi, Argentina.
“Messi is fine,” defender Nicolás Otamendi told FIFA.com. “It was only a knock and nothing else.”
The sense of trepidation surrounding only a potential injury demonstrated just how vital Messi is to La Albiceleste’s hopes of winning its third World Cup and first in 24 years.
After all, how could Argentine coach Diego Maradona replace a force that scored 47 goals in 53 games for FC Barcelona in Spain’s La Liga, a year after scoring 38 in 51 games? In 144 games since joining Barcelona in 2004, he’s scored 88 and has graced the cover of nearly every major sports publication, including ESPN The Magazine in June of last year.
“I am going to try and do what I do at Barcelona,” Messi, 22, told FIFA.com. “I am full of hope and really desire to do well in South Africa. I am used to the pressure. I play for Barcelona which is one of the most important teams in the world, and where it is obligatory to always win.”
It’s also mandatory for Argentina’s national team. Messi was a driving force in leading Argentina to the gold medal at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, where he assisted on the only goal in a 1-0 win over Nigeria in the final. In 44 matches with La Albiceleste, he has scored 13 times and also led the squad to a second-place showing at the Copa América in 2007.
But Messi hasn’t won the tournament that matters most: the World Cup. In his first appearance on soccer’s biggest stage four years ago in Germany, he had a goal and assist to lead Argentina to the quarterfinals for the fourth time in its past six trips. But in Argentina, which only has won fewer World Cups than Germany (three), Italy (four) and Brazil (five), anything short of winning it all is nothing.
“The level that Messi plays at spurs us on and motivates us,” Argentine goalie Sergio Romero told FIFA.com. “Seeing him perform like that means that we have to give it 100% when we play for Argentina to try to emulate him. In the qualifying matches, he had four or five people marking him. No one can really show what they’re really capable of when they’re up against that. Against non-South American defenses, it’ll be better. No one can mark him with one man. He’s a massive advantage for us.”
Messi’s performance in South Africa will be scrutinized, which is not uncommon for the country’s biggest superstar – just ask the coach of the Argentine national team, Diego Maradona. He played in four World Cups and solidified his legacy by leading the squad to the title in 1986 and a second-place finish four years later. But when he watches Messi turn soccer fields into his personal playgrounds, he doesn't see himself: Maradona sees someone better.
“Messi is better than when I played at the ‘86 World Cup,” Maradona told the Catalan daily Sport. “Messi is the best player in the world by far.”
Now, it’s Messi’s chance to prove it. La Albiceleste, ranked seventh by FIFA, opens Group B play on June 12 against 21st-ranked Nigeria, followed by a match against 47th-ranked South Korea on June 17 before wrapping up the preliminary round against 13th-ranked Greece on June 22.
Argentina is the favorite to claim its group, and a 13-2 favorite to return home as champion – and for good reason. The team’s dangerous counter-attack is paced by Messi, but must also get solid contributions from Sergio Agüero, who tied with Messi for a team-high four goals during CONMEBOL qualifying. The duo is complemented by forwards Carlos Tevez of England’s Manchester City and Diego Milito, who accounted for all of Inter Milan of Italy’s scoring in its 2-0 win over Germany’s Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final in Madrid, Spain, on May 22.
“I believe we have a good team that could go far in the tournament,” Messi told WorldCup2010now.com. “It’s in our hands to prove that we are considered one of the favorites for a reason.”