JOHANNESBURG, June 10 – Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona confront divergent challenges as Argentina start their World Cup campaign against African hopes Nigeria at Ellis Park Stadium on Saturday.Messi is widely anticipated to be the star of South Africa 2010, but Maradona, one of the greatest players of all time, is under scrutiny after enduring a turbulent qualifying campaign with the two-time world champions.
Currently the world’s best player, Messi already has an Olympic gold medal, an European Champions League title and Spanish league and cup double honours with Barcelona.
All that eludes him is winning the World Cup and over the coming month, starting with the clash against the Super Eagles this weekend, Messi looks set to make a huge impact on the greatest stage in world football.
And to put all those achievements into context, he does not turn 23 until June 24, two days after Argentina complete their group stage matches.
Maradona has been down the road before that beckons for Messi.
He may be a veritable living football legend as a player – mainly for his exploits as the inspirational captain of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning side – but as national team manager he has his vociferous critics.
Osvaldo Ardiles, 1978 world champion and his former international teammate, does not mince his words in a withering assessment of Maradona’s stewardship of the national side.
"Diego was the greatest player in the history of the game, but so far he has clearly not been successful as a manager. We qualified for these World Cup finals by the skin of our teeth, and with plenty of luck," Ardiles said.
The Argentine media have scorned Maradona for calling up over 100 players since he took charge in November 2008.
So the heat is on the 49-year-old to fully mesh the talents of Messi, captain Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, among others.
As ever Maradona is defiant and unwavering in his self-belief.
"I tell my players that 30 days of sacrifice for the chance to kiss the World Cup is nothing in the life of a man," he said.
"An achievement like that is like touching the sky. I played in World Cups and I reached two finals. I know what it takes."
Argentina have beaten Nigeria twice at the World Cup — 1-0 in 2002 and 2-1 in 1994 — and will be favoured to do so again.
Nigeria are not the force that captivated the world at the 1998 tournament in France, when Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh starred as they reached the second round.
But in Everton’s Joseph Yobo they possess a solid defensive anchor and Wolfsburg’s Obafemi Martins gives them an attacking thrust, although injury has deprived them of the skill of Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel.
Nigeria’s Swedish coach Lars Lagerback is far from daunted by the Argentine challenge.
"We have a great chance to do well in the World Cup," he said. "I think there is a realistic chance for Nigeria to go a long way in the World Cup."
Veteran skipper Nwankwo Kanu is set for his third and final World Cup and is the most decorated player in African football history.
"It is every player’s dream to be playing in South Africa and being part of such a historic event," the 33-year-old Portsmouth striker said.
"For me I want to score goals and if I can do that then we can do well."
KEY TO MATCH
Lionel Messi v Joseph Yobo
Everton defender Yobo faces one of the most challenging assignments in world football — trying to stop Messi. The reigning world footballer of the year possesses all the skills and is a real handful. How Yobo and the Nigerian defence cope with his threat will play a major part in the outcome.