There was a moment late in Tuesday night's game in Barcelona when the TV cameras caught Lionel Messi standing alone in the centre circle, the action for once somewhere else. Messi, with four superb goals to his name and the adulation of 90,000 people pouring from the Nou Camp stands, threw back his head and laughed, his face a picture of rapture.
That the 22-year-old Argentine is the best footballer in the world has become the sport's worst kept secret over the last few months. After his tormenting of Arsenal, one of the giants of the English Premier League, the lauding of his talents has reached fever pitch across the globe. But the reception in his native land of Argentina, whose hopes he will carry into June's World Cup finals, is a curious exception to this rule.
"The world kneels at the feet of Messi," reported Marca, the Spanish daily newspaper. "First it was Pele, then Maradona – now welcome the new king." El Mundo Deportivo declared: "It's not that Barca depend on Messi, it's that Messi is football." "Messi is scary, not of this world," reported AS. But back home in Argentina, the Buenos Aires Herald opted for a more guarded approach: "Bravo Maestro".
For the last three decades there has only been one maestro when it comes to Argentinian football: Diego Maradona, the man who will be Messi's boss at the finals in South Africa and the man who has been accused in some quarters of becoming envious of the praise being lavished upon his country's latest superstar.
Maradona is currently recovering from surgery after being attacked by one of his dogs, the latest peculiar twist in a life that has never flirted with the ordinary. Undoubtedly one of the true greats of the game, the pinnacle of his playing career came in 1986 when he single-handedly – and almost literally against England – won the World Cup for his country.
Like Messi, Maradona too once sparkled for Barcelona as a player, but Messi has yet to approach the same heights that El Pibe de Oro, the Golden Boy, scaled for Argentina.
"Even if I play for a million years," Messi has said, "I will never be near to what Maradona was as a footballer. I don't compare myself to Maradona, I want to make my own history and do something important with my own career."
To do that there is only one trophy he must win. In less than two months, the world's best players will assemble to contest the World Cup. The pressure on Messi to match his coach's achievements as a player will be immense.
"I don't like comparisons," Maradona said. "But if someone has to surpass me, then let it be an Argentine." Hardly a glowing endorsement. While Maradona, for all his troubles and erratic stewardship of the national side, continues to be revered in Argentina, Messi is regarded with something approaching suspicion for failing to perform at the level he does for Barcelona when he pulls on his country's striped shirt.
Another, deeper suspicion is that Maradona is quite happy for the slight young man from the industrial city of Rosario to remain an outsider at home. That, assert the conspiracists, is the only way Maradona can be certain he will remain Argentina's sole footballing god.
In stark contrast to the manner in which Messi is treated in Europe, Messi's father Jorge decided to go on Argentine television to defend his son. He said: "What happens to him in the national team could happen to anyone. It can be solved with work. Maybe they treat him differently in Europe. Here, we maltreat him and we batter him."
The problem for Messi is that he is not regarded by many Argentinian supporters as one of them, unlike Maradona. It was playing for Boca Juniors, the club of the working man in Buenos Aires, that Maradona first made his name. So too did Carlos Tevez, who is now with Manchester City and is one of the other globally regarded Argentinian stars. Tevez is adored when he plays in his national colours; Messi is not.
In Latin American football, every player has a nickname. Messi's is "The Catalan", a moniker that says everything. To many he is regarded as more Spanish than Argentinian. The fact that he left for Europe at the age of just 13 – Barcelona offered to pay for the growth hormones he needed having been diagnosed with a growth deficiency – continues to be held against him by some sections of the Albiceleste support.
Claudio Mauri, a football writer for the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, suggested last week: "The world's best footballer is an Argentinian who, in his own country, has less fans than a referee."
Maradona was appointed as coach to the national side in November 2008, with negligible experience of managing at any level of football, let alone one of the world's great teams. Argentina subsequently qualified for the finals – many would say in spite of Maradona – after a roller-coaster campaign which included a 6-1 defeat by Bolivia, a team that won just four of its 18 qualifying games.
Argentina had to win their last two games to squeeze into the final qualification place for South Africa. During his time in charge Maradona has used more than 100 players, and while Messi's place in the team has never been in doubt he has been a pale imitation of the "Messiah" who has flitted memorably across European playing fields these past few months.
The ceaselessly changing cast of the national side cannot have helped him – the Barcelona team is much the same XI week after week – but he has struggled to impose himself under Maradona, a fact that the coach has not been shy to draw attention to. "He shouldn't take the criticism badly," Maradona declared as the troubled qualifying campaign was dissected. "Messi needs to lead this team and he knows it. We have got high expectations."
Maradona has fielded Messi in a variety of forward roles in the team and has rarely picked Juan Ramon Riquelme, the Boca Juniors playmaker, alongside whom Messi has produced some of his best displays. The Messi of Barcelona, all smiles, feints, goals and trickery, has rarely been seen in the famous blue and white shirt over the last year.
Maradona has airily declared that he will change the team again if necessary if it helps to bring the best out of his star player. But he has also suggested it is down to the player himself to correct his international wrongs.
"To be a legend one needs to win a World Cup," Messi said last week. But the question remains: does his coach want him to become one?
Being Diego: Maradona in his own words – and other people's
* On beating England at the 1986 World Cup with his Hand of God goal: "It was as if we had beaten a country, more than just a football team."
* On the 1998 World Cup: "The players have all got square feet. They are like Robocops, they have more need of lubricant than massage. I don't believe the tournament could be worse."
* On his relationship with the Almighty: "God makes me play well. That is why I always make the sign of a cross when I walk out on to the pitch. I feel I would be betraying him if I didn't."
* On being voted joint player of the century with Pele: "The people voted for me. Now they want me to share the prize with Pele. I'm not going to share the prize with anybody."
* On being himself: "I am calm... my surname is not a burden for me. It might be for others, but not for me."
* On his football talent: "I worked hard all my life for this. Those who say I don't deserve anything, that it all came easy, can kiss my arse."
* On Zinedine Zidane: "He may be the best master of the ball today, but his play is sad."
* Kevin Keegan: "I don't think there is anybody bigger or smaller than Maradona."
* Gustavo Bernstein, Argentinian psychologist: "Maradona is our maximum term of reference. To no other, in the last 20 years, have we offered up so much passion. Argentina is Maradona, Maradona is Argentina."
* Pele: "My main doubt is whether he has the sufficient greatness as a person to justify being honoured by a worldwide audience."
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