Maradona has high hopes for Messi

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:38 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG - Sporting a dark grey suit on his back and a bushy salt-and-pepper beard on his chin, Diego Maradona looks as much South American druglord as Argentinian manager.

Until he flashes that trademark smile, that is.

At that point, when he is in the mood to showcase those famous pearly whites, he transforms from crime lord to cartoon character, a chubby fun-loving chap who seems to thrive on playing off the crowd.

Such was the case about 30 minutes before Saturday’s tilt between Maradona’s ridiculously talented side and the always dangerous Nigerians, who don’t lack for natural skills themselves.

While Lionel Messi, Gabriel Heinz and the rest of the Argentinians were warming up out on the field, The Mischievous One had his back to his players, opting to wave at and spur on the drum-beating Argentinian fans who were holding their own powder-blue-and-white Messi-palooza bash at a packed Ellis Park Stadium.

After all the criticism, the hair-pulling, the angst that accompanied Maradona during Argentina’s wobbly efforts to qualify for South Africa 2010, here he was, on the world’s biggest stage again, this time as a manager, laughing and frolicking as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Then again, knowing you have Lionel Messi in the lineup, maybe he doesn’t.

Maradona has made no secret of the fact that he considers the diminutive Messi to be the next Argentinian legend-in-the-making, a difference maker in a sport that often features far too few of them.

At just 22 years of age, Messi knows that a spectacular World Cup is in his grasp, a tournament that could solidify his spot in soccer folklore. While a 2009 Champions League title with Barcelona and a ‘09 world player-of-the-year crown already have been printed on his resume, it is World Cup titles that rule in his home country.

If that, indeed, is his quest, consider him off to a good start.

No, Messi did not score in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Nigeria under the orangy glow of the setting South African sun. That honour went to Heinze, whose well-placed header in the sixth minute had the Argentinian fans dancing up a storm in the stands.

But it was Messi, in fact, who proved to be the most riveting player on the field. completing between-the-legs passes, weaving his way through a sea of cleats, and ripping shots that, if not for the spectacular acrobatics of Nigerian goalie Vincent Enyeama, would have netted him at least two goals.

“We deserved to win by more,” Messi said, a statement that had more to do with fact and less to do with ego.

Maradona isn’t surprised at how Messi has roared out of the World Cup gates. Far from it.

“We’ve talked about this and I want Messi close to the ball,” he said. “As long as he has fun close to the ball, then we will all be fine.”

Maradona compared Messi’s non-stop pursuit of the ball to a child hooked on candy.

“If you take the ball away from him, it would be like taking chocolate away from a kid,” Maradona said. “He produced magic on the field today.”

Maradona is an expert on magic. He produced enough of his own on the pitch during his time as a player with Argentina, leading his country to a World Cup title in 1986 in Mexico City.

Now he looks to pass the torch to Messi, who appears to be more than eager to accept it, much to the glee of the the team’s singing backers.

“I really hope that my men will make the most of the support from Argentina’s fans, the people in the stadium,” Maradona said. “I hope they can make the most of that so they can excel and improve. My players will then have the flavour of winning.

“If our players keep winning the games they are going to feel the need, the hunger to win the game.”

Watch out, World Cup. Lionel Messi appears to have just such a ravenous appetite building inside.

And not just for chocolate either.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


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