Lionel Messi no Maradona in Argentine hearts, yet

'Maradona is Argentine. He wore the shirt with the guts that Messi lacks' is how one fan put it, as Lionel Messi continues to be unfavourably compared to the legend despite his World Cup 2014 brilliance.

Lionel Messi is shown at an Argentina training session on Saturday ahead of Argentina's World Cup last-16 match against Switzerland on Tuesday in Brazil. Juan Mabromata / AFP / June 28, 2014
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Lionel Messi’s World Cup form is banishing memories of the goal drought the mercurial striker had in South Africa four years ago and electrifying one-time wary Argentine hearts.

Over the years, the forward has struggled to arouse passions in the homeland he departed at 13 to join the Barcelona academy in Spain, leaving larger-than-life Diego Maradona as the undisputed Argentine footballing idol.

Messi’s sparkling career at Barcelona had seemed faraway for many compatriots, given he was not a familiar figure who rose up through local teams as did Maradona and most of the other South American greats before they headed to Europe.

A quiet World Cup debut in 2006 and a chequered tournament in 2010, where he failed to score and Argentina, coached by Maradona, were thrashed 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals, compounded that schism between his global glory and sometimes lukewarm local sentiment.

But with Messi banging the goals in during the qualifiers for this World Cup and scoring four in Argentina’s three wins so far in Brazil, the four-time World Player of the Year appears to be winning over the few remaining holdouts.

“He’s saved us,” said a grinning Paula Arganaras, a 24-year-old shopworker who has not missed any of Argentina’s games at the finals. “He was born with something special.”

Evidence of a ballooning love affair is everywhere.

The 27 year old’s birthday on Tuesday was an all-day celebration for many TV channels. His face smiles down from billboards throughout the capital Buenos Aires.

Children proudly prance around in their No 10 jerseys and fans carry life-size cardboard cutouts of him.

The adulation, though, inevitably hits a historic roadblock.

“Of course, Maradona first,” Arganaras said. “For now, at the moment, it’s Messi, but Maradona is always in our hearts.”

Therein lies the essence of Messi’s conundrum at home.

While Argentines marvel over the striker’s remarkable goals and deft dribbling, he cannot whip up the same fervour as the man to whom he is constantly compared.

To start with, he would have to win a World Cup as Maradona did in 1986, almost single-handedly in an average team.

The Maradona story, born in a grimy slum and later struggling with drug addictions, is also a tale of human flamboyance and flaws that everyone knows and can quickly identify with – love him or hate him.

By contrast, clean-cut and quiet Messi, a devoted partner and father, keeps his cards close to his chest.

Some say the country should just get used to Messi’s tamer style off the pitch.

“He’s not very demonstrative but in his way he’s proving he does have passion,” Fernando Hernandez, a 42-year-old lawyer, said as he watched a game on a giant screen set up in a central Buenos Aires plaza. “In 2010, Messi seemed almost indifferent when he was playing. His attitude has changed this time.”

There was certainly no mistaking Messi’s joy when he scored his first goal at this tournament against Bosnia – just his second in a World Cup. Whether a fired-up Messi can bring home a medal, from the soil of arch-rival Brazil to boot, is another question.

Argentina have not lifted the trophy since Maradona brought it home almost three decades ago.Clearly sensitive to his image at home, Messi has always gone out of his way to stress he pours his soul into playing for Argentina and is evidently hungry for the ultimate win.

But there are compatriots of his who seemingly will never be won over.

“He’s lacking – ‘Argentinism’,” said 48-year-old kiosk worker Claudia Salinas with a little hesitation.

She confessed she flat out “doesn’t like” Messi.

“As an Argentine, I think the shirt weighs very heavily on him,” she said.

“Maradona is Argentine. He wore the shirt with the guts that Messi lacks. That can change, but let’s see if he wants to change.”

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