A wizard called Messi

Like him or loathe him, there is no doubt Lionel Messi has captured the imagination of many football fans. By Kuang Fu.

The Spanish press labelled him “Messidona” for his resemblance to fellow countryman Diego Maradona — a fair comparison to a player who, not very long ago, had mesmerised the football world and terrorised numerous defences.

Lionel Messi will not only go down as one of the best players of his generation, but many will regard him as one of the best to have played the game. And it's hard to imagine he is still only 23!

The Argentine was nominated several times for the Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year by the age of 21 and he won both by the time he was 22. Messi also won the Ballon d'Or last year.

However, the prospect of Messi being adored by millions of fans around the world may never have happened.

Born in Rosario, Santa Fe, Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at the age of 11.

Playing for Newell's Old Boys, based in his home city, Messi was spotted by the Primera Division club, River Plate, but they could not afford to pay for treatment for his condition as it cost $900 a month.

Carles Rexach, the sporting director of Barcelona, was then alerted to the potential of Messi and, after a trial, the Catalan giants signed the player, offering to pay for the medical bills if he was willing to move to Spain — which his family did.

Messi made his official first-team debut in November 2003 at the age of 16 in a friendly against Porto and within a year appeared in a Barca shirt for the first time in a league game, becoming the third-youngest player to play for the club and the youngest club player to play in La Liga.

He then became the youngest player to score in a La Liga game at the age of 17.

Messi has won a string of team and personal honours, which started back in his debut season when Barca were crowned league champions. In 2006 he also won the league and Champions League double.

But his breakthrough season came in 2006-07 when he was a first-team regular. Messi had the distinction of scoring a hat-trick in ‘El Clasico' and netting just over a goal every two games.

Two years later, he played a pivotal part in Barcelona winning the treble, chipping in with 38 goals. He went even better the following season, scoring 47 times. It equalled Ronaldo's record during his time at Nou Camp, a feat that Messi eclipsed during the current campaign.

On the international front, Messi was the leading scorer in the 2005 World Youth Championship and soon established himself in the senior national side. In 2006, he was the youngest Argentine to play in the World Cup and was a losing finalist in the Copa America tournament a year later.

Messi's maiden international honour arrived in Beijing in 2008 — the Olympic gold.

However, his impressive trophy haul is missing one key ingredient — the World Cup.

That was something Maradona managed to achieve in 1986, albeit during a controversial campaign that brought about the ‘Hand of God' goal against England.

Ironically, Messi — described by Maradona himself as his “successor” — nearly replicated two of the most famous goals in a single season in 2007.

First, one of his strikes during a Copa del Rey semifinal against Getafe — which saw him beat half a dozen players and the goalkeeper — drew comparisons to Maradona's solo effort against England which was voted as the ‘Goal of the Century'.

Then, in a game against Espanyol, Messi guided a cross into the goal with his hand — and the goal stood. Messi is now playing a major part in a Barcelona side that plays some of the most attractive football anyone has seen.

Whether anyone can entice him to England is questionable but the Barclays Premier League would surely be a better place with him in it.

Like him or loathe him, there is no doubt Messi has captured the imagination of many football fans.

But is he the best? That will always be open to debate.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was one of huge disappointment for Messi, who failed to play a part in any of the goals, while during Argentina's heavy quarterfinal loss to Germany he was virtually non-existent.

In January 2009 he told “Hat Trick Barca”, a programme on Canal 33: “I have a girlfriend and she is living in Argentina. I am relaxed and happy.”

His girlfriend is called Antonella Roccuzzo.

Messi owns five cars: Dodge Charger SRT8, Maserati 2009 Model, Lexus 4x4, Audi Q7 and Ferrari Spider.

FACTFILE Name: Position: Club: D.O.B: Argentina caps: Argentina goals: Argentina debut: Moment to remember

Replicating Maradona's ‘Goal of the Century' — against England in the 1986 World Cup — when scoring against Getafe in the 2007 Copa del Rey semifinal, beating half a dozen players and the goalkeeper.

Moment to forget

Watching Spain, his ‘second home', win the World Cup last summer after spending the majority of the tournament on the sidelines.

© PA Sport, 2011, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited. Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.