(Reuters) – Diego Maradona thrives on attention and continuing to be acclaimed as one of the greatest players of all time, which is a recipe for keeping Lionel Messi out of the World Cup limelight according to critics.
However, Messi did what all Argentines hoped for in Saturday’s 1-0 opening win over Nigeria, dispelling the doubts surrounding his ability to carry his country toward a third world title and Maradona, confounding the critics, did his bit.
In Maradona’s statements, even when he says he would like Messi to go down as the greatest footballer ever, there is always the lingering suspicion of a slight reluctance to accept that Messi is now what Maradona was but no longer is.
Maradona’s praise for World Player of the Year Messi is always tempered by an immediate follow-up about the quality and form of the team around him.
No-one is in doubt, though, that Saturday’s victory in Argentina’s first Group B match at Ellis Park was due mainly to Messi even if the goal came from a corner drill involving Juan Sebastian Veron and scorer Gabriel Heinze.
The key was a Madrid heart-to-heart between Maradona and Messi in April in which the coach gave the little ace his head and the role of pulling the strings in the team.
“I want Leo close to the ball and today he was there,” Maradona said on Saturday. Messi added: “Fortunately, I managed to get the ball a lot and make my team mates play.”
Argentina could have won by three or four goals. Messi made half a dozen clear chances and might have put a couple away himself if Vincent Enyeama had not played the match of his life in the Nigeria goal.
This was a far cry from the struggles Argentina faced when they had to cope with tough South American defenses in the qualifiers and were waiting for Messi to translate his Barcelona form into productive performances for his country.
With qualification finally in the bag, fans, media and Maradona, learning the job as he went along, relaxed.
He wanted to win another World Cup as coach after lifting the trophy as captain and needed his Messi just as Carlos Bilardo needed his Maradona back in the mid-1980s.
A March friendly against Germany in Munich, which Argentina won 1-0, resolved some issues for Maradona, like the inclusion of Walter Samuel in central defense.
But Messi still floundered, looking for his place in attack, so Maradona visited Europe in April for a heart-to-heart — just like Bilardo did when he met Maradona in Europe in 1983 to say he wanted to build a team around him.
Maradona asked Messi to say how he would ideally like the team to line up if the choice was his.
The result was the side that played against Nigeria with Messi lining up behind fellow forwards Carlos Tevez and Higuain. It was partially tested in Buenos Aires during last month’s 5-0 rout of Canada with Javier Pastore in the Messi role.
The trio rotated constantly on Saturday, confusing a Nigeria defense that was lucky not to concede several goals in the opening 20 minutes, and observers say Argentina’s impressive start was the best spell by a team at the tournament so far.
It was of course just the beginning for Argentina with South Korea, boosted by a 2-0 win over former European champions Greece, their next opponents on Thursday. But Messi and his team look set for the knockout phase and another shot at glory.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)