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Lionel Messi searching for an international trophy

Jun 27 '16 | By La Afrique Media | Views: 517 | Comments: 0

The Copa America Centenario has showcased the strength and depth of South American football at the national team level. The club game, however, is a different matter. It is here where CONCACAF is surely more competitive than their CONMEBOL opposition.

The reason, of course, is that South American football has turned into an export industry, with its best players snapped up at ever younger ages by the top clubs in Europe. But the production line of talent is still working its magic.

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One of the highlights of the CONMEBOL calendar is the South American U-20 Championship, staged every two years, which offers a wonderful glimpse at future greatness. It was at this tournament in Uruguay in 2003 that I picked out a young Javier Mascherano as a player to watch, along with the man who would go on to become his teammate for many years at FC Barcelona, Brazilian full-back Dani Alves.

Tough in the tackle, proficient in possession and, above all, likely to come up big in decisive moments, teenage Mascherano was already impressive. He struck me as a footballing Joe Frazier of sorts -- the harder the battle, the more he enjoyed it.

But his talent was surpassed two years later in Colombia, when a crop of young starlets took center stage, including future Uruguay captain and defender Diego Godin and Chilean midfielder Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, the latter of whom has done very well at the Copa America Centenario this summer.

As good as Godin and Fuenzalida were, there was one player who stood above the rest, the undoubted star of the tournament: a small 17-year-old from Argentina named Lionel Messi. 

Messi had already been based in Barcelona for four years by 2005, and had even appeared in a friendly match with the club's first team. In truth, though, not even Argentine fans knew much about him. There were rumours of something special, but they were hard to believe when you saw him take the field.

Small, timid and physically unimposing, Messi looked like the runt of the litter. But as soon as he got the ball, it was clear that we were in the presence of a rare talent. It was the way he ran with the ball tied to his left foot, changing direction and causing opposing defenders to collide with each other as he passed by.

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Of course, there was no telling then just how far Messi would go. But one comparison was inevitable: little and left-footed, there was something of Diego Maradona in him.

Messi and Maradona are different players from distinct backgrounds and eras. Maradona made this much clear when he said that Messi is "a great person"but "has no personality."

Argentina's current captain, who turned 29 on Friday, is certainly not an old-time ranter or raver. He has grown to his peak in a more technological era, under different circumstances than Maradona. In fact, he could be considered the Maradona of the PlayStation generation. It has occasionally seemed as if his thumbs move more than his lips.

But there is a quiet strength of character at work. It is evident in the way he plays. True, he does not face the same physical danger that Maradona did -- in those days, skillful players received far less protection.

Messi needs courage to do what he does as well, though. Week in and week out, defenders are trying to stop him by fair means and foul. But he always picks himself up, gets on with the game and makes it clear -- quietly but firmly -- that he has not been intimidated.

Messi has developed his aura of leadership off the field as well. This week, he voiced his team's dissatisfaction with the Argentine Football Association, which is embroiled in turmoil back home, the ramifications of which have had an effect on the team's logistics and preparation for this tournament. His complaint has been registered -- again, with his thumbs via Instagram -- but he remains focused on the task at hand; his priority is finally getting his hands on a senior international title.

Messi has said in the past that he would trade many of the honours he has accumulated over the years for a chance to perform a lap of honour with his national team. He won the World Youth Championship with Argentina in 2005 and gold at the 2008 Olympic Games.

But Sunday marks a huge day for the career of the seemingly unremarkable little man I had the privilege of seeing take the field in Colombia a little over a decade ago. 

source: ESPN

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