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Messi is Argentina's million dollar baby

Barcelona have reportedly written a whopping sum of $192 million into the Argentine prodigy's contract in order to scare off suitors.

india Updated: May 17, 2006 15:38 IST

It's often said you can't put a price on the sort of talent that Lionel Messi is preparing to unleash on the World Cup.

But if you tried to, a figure of around 192 million dollars might not be too far off the mark.

That mind-boggling sum is the amount Barcelona are reported to have had written into the Argentine prodigy's contract in order to scare off suitors.

And for fans at the Nou Camp who have marvelled at the 18-year-old's electrifying repertoire of skills this season, Messi is worth every penny.

His phenomenal close control, low center of gravity and lethal acceleration allow him to change direction sharply at breathtaking speed in a way that is reminiscent of his idol and compatriot, the great Diego Maradona.

"It's an honour to be compared to Maradona but I have to say that I've never enjoyed those kinds of comparisons," says Messi.

But while Argentinian officials have been anxiously playing down the hype surrounding the precocious young tyro, the comparisons are understandable.

Born almost one year to the day after Maradona weaved his way through the entire England team for his 1986 World Cup wonder-goal, Messi began playing football at the age of five for his father's club Grandoli.

In 1995, he joined Rosario outfit Newell's Old Boys - one of Maradona's former clubs - where doctors first detected a growth problem in the pint-sized youngster.

"I get on really well with the Brazilians," Messi said. "Ronaldinho is a phenomenon. He gives me a lot of advice and praises me constantly. We have fun in every training session. He says I'm his little brother."

"Ronaldinho is world class, and he's got an ability to control the ball which makes me jealous. At any moment he can do something special to win it - that's what I must aim to do."

According to Maradona, though, Messi may already have the ability to turn a match on its head, and is more than capable of coping with the burden of expectation being placed on youthful shoulders.

"He can put up with anything, even with the saviour tag that people are already attaching," says Maradona, who acknowledges the stylistic similarities between himself and Messi.

"What most surprises me about him is that he hasn't got control problems," says Maradona.

"The ball remains on the upper part of his foot, like it is glued to it. He feels the ball, and that makes him different to the rest," he added."

It soon became clear to Barcelona's coaching staff that they had unearthed a special talent.

He made his senior debut for Barcelona in the 2004-2005 seasons and became the club's youngest ever scorer when he netted against Albacete aged 17.

Last year he was the star of the tournament at the Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands, finishing top-scorer with six goals in seven games, including two in the final, as Argentina romped to the title in style.

His senior debut for the Argentina national team followed in August in a friendly against Hungary in Budapest.

The match was a disaster for Messi however, who was sent off only three minutes after appearing as a substitute for lashing out at an opponent following a clumsy challenge.

This season, however, Messi has flourished as part of Barcelona's Spanish title-winning team, although the youngster missed the final two months of the campaign after suffering a thigh injury in a Champions League win over Chelsea.

First Published: May 17, 2006 14:54 IST