Maradona: I want to see Messi give best performance of all time

Argentina v Nigeria: Today, 3pm, BBC1
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The Independent Football

Until now it has all been about Diego Maradona, and the man to whom Oxford University once gave the title "Master Inspirer of Dreams" has played his role admirably at Argentina's base at the University of Pretoria.

He has charmed his hosts. He has encouraged Angel di Maria to move from Benfica to Real Madrid: "I hope they sell him for €200m and earn a lot of silver", and he has taken the opportunity to round on his old enemy Pele, whom he refused to name but called "a certain coloured gentleman who played No 10".

This afternoon, at Johannesburg's Ellis Park, where in 1995 Nelson Mandela and François Pienaar held aloft the Rugby World Cup as a symbol of the Rainbow Nation, it will be time for another master inspirer of dreams, Lionel Messi, to take to the stage. When he arrived in South Africa, Messi commented that he was in the best form of his life and playing in the best Argentina team for a generation.

Just as the 1986 World Cup was seized by Maradona, there are many who expect that this will be Messi's tournament, although since he is still 22 there are many, including El Diego himself, who suspect that he will be the man who spoils Brazil's World Cup party four years hence. However, Messi has not worn an Argentina shirt in anger since they overcame Germany in Munich – which is by a distance the most impressive performance they have delivered under Maradona's erratic leadership – and that was three months ago. Whenever they are asked about Messi, the Argentina camp insist the player is close to exhaustion.

"He has arrived at the World Cup tired and the damage is already done. The organisers worry about doping controls but not if someone plays 70 matches a year," said Argentina's fitness coach, Fernando Signorini, who oversaw Maradona's fitness programme for the 1994 tournament that ended with the player's expulsion for failing a drugs test after facing Nigeria.

"I just wish from the bottom of my heart that Messi goes on to showcase his talents and delivers the best performance of all time," reflected Maradona, who anointed the boy from Rosario as his natural heir the moment he saw him take Argentina to the 2005 World Youth Cup. "But Pep Guardiola [the Barcelona manager] would take off people like Xavi and give them a rest but he would never do that for Messi."

The contrast between Maradona and his opposite number at Ellis Park, Nigeria's freshly appointed manager, Lars Lagerback, could not be more pronounced. Maradona is oversized in every way while the bespectacled, reserved Lagerback is considered dull even by Swedish standards.

The fetish African nations have for firing their managers just before a World Cup has benefited both Lagerback and Sven Goran Eriksson, although the former has not notably improved Nigeria's erratic form that saw them collapse over the line for World Cup qualification and disappear in the African Cup of Nations.

Whose job is it to stop Messi?

The job is likely to fall on the little-known shoulders of Rabiu Afolabi, a 30-year-old journeyman from Red Bull Salzburg, whose involvement with the national team has until now been peripheral. "I've only ever watched him on TV, but he looks a phenomenal player," he said of Messi. "We have a plan to stop him. I can't really reveal what it is but it is a very good plan."

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