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World Cup 2010

Young Phenom Looks to Emerge from Maradona's Shadow

Argentine soccer fans hope rising star Lionel Messi and his (in)famous mentor will lead their team to victory.

Lionel Messi Jugando con la Seleccion Argentina

Messi on an offensive drive. — Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

En español | When Argentina survived a stormy stretch to qualify for a place at the 2010 World Cup, team manager and soccer great Diego Maradona made it clear whom he expects to return the Albicelestes to glory.

Lionel Messi.

Dubbed "The Next Maradona" for his pinpoint passes and jaw-dropping goals, Messi is considered the best soccer player in the world today. So why is Argentina struggling?

"Something's not clicking," says Angelo DiBernardo of Aurora, Illinois.
The 53-year-old DiBernardo, a native of Buenos Aires who immigrated to the United States as a teenager, was a standout player in the 1970s and '80s heyday of the New York Cosmos. On that team, he played alongside legends of the sport such as Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. He has also mentored hundreds of youngsters as soccer coach at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora for 21 years.

"Argentines have high expectations of their team," says DiBernardo, who also played for the U.S. National Team in 1979-85. "I just haven't seen the team jelling."

Part of the problem is that Messi has been good—though short of spectacular—in his performance for Argentina. (He made his name playing for his club team, FC Barcelona in Spain.)

Like DiBernardo, many pundits in the soccer world believe the fault lies with Maradona. His prowess as a player or his patriotism are unquestionable, but that doesn't make him a great coach. Maradona should stop pressuring his protégé to become The Next Maradona, pundits say, and just let Messi be Messi. Maybe Maradona is putting too much pressure on Messi to lead the Argentine team. Indeed, when Maradona took charge of the squad, he gave the number 10 jersey—the iconic number he wore as a player—to Messi. After Argentina qualified for the World Cup, Maradona announced that the reserved Messi needed to step up as the "owner of the team" if they were to succeed at next summer's World Cup. Maybe it's all too much for the youngster.

"Messi makes things happen on the field," DiBernardo says. "But he's not a personality like Maradona. Maradona was able to put the team on his shoulders and carry them to victory. Messi is something different."

Maradona, 49, emerged from the shantytowns of Buenos Aires to become one of the greatest soccer players in history. He played in four World Cups, winning in 1986. At that tournament, Maradona scored both the greatest and the most controversial goals in tournament history. The former goal came after a stunning run; the latter, earlier in the same quarter-final game versus England, was an illegal handball that Maradona claimed was scored by "la mano de Dios" (the hand of God).

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