Sunday, July 15, 2007

Messi: Emerging from the shadows

Maracaibo, Venezuela (Reuters)
Sweltering Puerto Ordaz, lying halfway between the Caribbean coast and the Amazon jungle in the heart of Venezuela's savannah, is not noted for being one of international soccer's great venues.
On Wednesday, however, the remote, riverside town witnessed a rare moment of football magic when Lionel Messi stamped his indelible mark on the Copa America with a sublime goal.Picking up a short pass from Carlos Tevez on the right, Messi spotted Mexico goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez off his line and chipped the ball delicately over him from the edge of the area.
The goal, the second in Argentina's 3-0 semi-final win over Mexico, was arguably the best goal of the tournament and one of the best scored this year anywhere.
It signalled a great transformation for Messi, who only a year ago sat forlornly on the bench as Argentina lost to Germany on penalties in the World Cup quarter-final in Berlin.It was also a fitting reward for the Venezuelan organisers who have invested in state-of-the-art stadiums for an event where, in recent editions, facilities have often been basic.The Venezuelan government has spent an estimated $1 billion, building three stadiums from scratch and refurbishing another six beyond recognition, to bring the Copa to what is primarily baseball territory.The Cachamay stadium where Messi scored his goal was, until recently, a humble arena with no terraces behind the goal, where the tropical sun beat down on hapless fans.It is now an impressive, covered 41,000-capacity stadium.
When Brazilian pair Ronaldinho and Kaka announced earlier this year that they would not take part because they were too tired, it was feared that other top players would follow suit and the tournament would become a damp squib.Their decision seemed typical of an era in which top players ply their trade almost exclusively in Europe, leaving regions such as Latin America and Africa to act as nothing more than providers of raw material.So, the decision of Argentina to bring a full complement of players was greeted with great enthusiasm by the Venezuelan public.
Messi, in particular, has been greeted rapturously every time he appears on the pitch.Wednesday's goal, almost inevitably, sparked a war of superlatives among the media and led to comparisons with Diego Maradona.
"The Maradona of the 21st century scored an anthological goal," said the Argentine sports daily Ole.La Nacion described it as "a magic touch" and wrote: "On Sunday, Argentina will have to show against Brazil (in the final) that they are the best team in the Copa America."Argentina coach Alfio Basile quickly played down comparisons with Maradona, who never won the Copa America as a player.
"His career has just got off the ground and you can never compare Diego's career with a boy who is starting out," he said.
"The only thing the coaches should do is not inhibit him in the slightest, we have to let him fly."

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