Messi eyes Maradona's missed title

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> The player touted as Argentina's next Maradona has a chance this weekend to claim a championship never won by the soccer great: The Copa America.

Updated: July 14, 2007 14:00 IST
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Maracaibo, Venezuela:

The player touted as Argentina's next Maradona has a chance this weekend to claim a championship never won by the soccer great: The Copa America.

Lionel Messi will be a key part of Argentina's side against defending champion Brazil in the final on Sunday, and the 20-year-old referred to as "Messidona" in Spain hopes to avoid repeating the Copa futility of his famed predecessor.

Diego Maradona played in three South American championships in 1979, 1987 (in Argentina) and 1989 but couldn't even lead the Albiceleste to a final.

Maradona has been the unrealistic benchmark for Messi ever since his soccer talent was publicly hailed at age 13. Maradona even anointed Messi his successor, telling the BBC last year: "I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi."

The parallels are impressive.

Both stout left-footers were crowned the best player in Argentina's 1979 and 2005 championship runs at Under-20 World Cups, and both debuted in Europe for FC Barcelona, Maradona at 21 and Messi at 17.

When Messi dribbled out of Barcelona's half, past six defenders, and scored against Getafe in the Copa del Rey semifinals in April, the goal was celebrated around the world, and compared to Maradona's solo score against England in the 1986 World Cup.

Hand of god

Last month, a sneaky touch-in with his hand drew more comparisons with Maradona's "Hand of God" goal in the '86 World Cup.

At the Copa America, Messi has become the tournament's star attraction - even when he's not on the field.

After Argentina qualified for the quarterfinals, coach Alfio Basile decided to rest the man Argentines affectionately call "La Pulga," or "Flea," for the final group match against Paraguay.

But 66 minutes into a scoreless draw, Basile yielded to chants of "Messi, Messi" by mostly Venezuelan fans and subbed in the 5-foot-7 striker, whose cross 12 minutes later was deflected in by Javier Mascherano for a 1-0 victory.

After Argentina trounced Peru 4-0 in the quarterfinals, one desperate female fan threw herself from the 3-meter-high bleachers to hug Messi before he entered the locker room tunnel.

Messi's scored only twice in the Copa, but one of them could be the goal of the tournament.

In Wednesday's 3-0 semifinal win over Mexico, Messi caught Mexico goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez off his line and beat him with a finessed lob Basile said "was something only the superstars do - an extraordinary feat that moved everybody."

Maradona's feats on the field aren't likely to ever be matched, and Messi's off to a good start in making his own mark, including the record as the youngest ever to represent Argentina at last year's World Cup.

Another way to reduce comparisons with Maradona would be a Copa America gold medal on Sunday.

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