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Messi emerges from Maradona's shadow in Quito


Leo Messi has always struggled to convince Argentina fans, but I think this time he might just have done it. He led his side in Quito in the most difficult of circumstances. Argentina were on their third coach of the World Cup qualification campaign and had drawn four consecutive home games, dropping eight points by the wayside. This was their final roll of the dice, at 2,800 metres above sea level. The visitors conceded in the first minute, which at that stage meant they would miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970, when they were condemned by a 2-2 draw with Peru in La Bombonera. That was a golden generation, featuring Cejas, Perfumo, Marzolini, Yazalde, Pinino and Mas... But fortune thumbed its nose at them.

That memory tormented Argentina until Messi took the problem in hand and scored three times with that graceful ease that is all his own. He saved the day and at the same time provided the kick up the backside that the whole of Argentina (or perhaps not all) had been expecting. The game in Quito was Messi’s first great performance for his country, the first time that he genuinely stood out in the blue and white shirt. Until then he had never been the same player for Argentina as he was for Barcelona. When you think of that glorious Barça side, orchestral in midfield with Xavi and Iniesta, you could assume that was the reason. But Barcelona now are not the same standard as Barcelona then and yet Messi has been shining there still. Why did he only do so on Tuesday for Argentina?

The only explanation is that he feels unloved in some quarters. Mario Kempes suggested as much recently, when he said that Maradona devotees would view the failure of Messi’s Argentina through tearless eyes. Maradona is still so loved in Argentina that some view Messi as a usurper. Short, left-footed, at one stage sporting luxurious locks, a number 10... But brought up in Europe. "He's like the kid who turns up on your doorstep on his 18th birthday... You just can't love him the same," an Argentinean friend explained to me with frankness. I hope that his performance in Quito has reversed that situation. On Wednesday, Olé ran a headline that was worth more than this entire piece: “Messi is Argentinean.”