Lionel Messi was the key to Argentina winning the men’s gold medal. (www.ScottBales/YCJPhoto)

With the Red Bulls hosting Inter Miami CF and Lionel Messi on Saturday, I figured I would share a story about the Argentine star before he truly became an Argentine legend. This story was posted on Aug. 19, 2008.

By Michael Lewis

BEIJING, China — Soccer fans and media have called him the new Maradona, but Lionel Messi knows better.

He likes to say that he is the first Lionel Messi and that will do fine for the Argentina Olympic soccer team, thank you.

“People compare us but they compared other Argentina players with him,” Messi was quoted in a recent issue of FourFourTwo. “Just to be mentioned with him is an honor. Like every Argentinean, I love Maradona. But I am not Maradona, I’m Messi.”

In his short, yet productive and spectacular, career, the 21-year-old Messi already has started to cast a shadow of his own. He is so quick and so skilled, it would be not be outrageous to call his moves and his goals, ahem, Messi-anic, because many of them are such works of art.

He feigns one way, jukes another, waiting for the opposing defender to commit himself and then he is off to the races. The goal line is his finish line. He pulled off those types of moves several during Argentina’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over the Netherlands in extratime in Shanghai Saturday night.

Ironically, the man who made his reputation scoring beautiful goals, set up the winning goal with a pretty pass worth of a playmaking midfielder. After scoring Argentina’s first goal, Messi’s brilliant diagonal pass — from right to left through the midfield, found an onrushing DiMaria, who raced down into the left side of the penalty area. He forced goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer out of the net and fired home a 12-yard shot to break a 1-1 deadlock in the 105th minute.

Even the opposing coach, the Netherlands’ Foppe de Haan, could not contain himself when he talked about this extraordinarily gifted player.

“Messi’s contribution was extraordinary,” he said. “When Messi’s on the ball he’s unbelievably good.”

The Argentines booked a Tuesday semifinal date with South American archrival Brazil here. The Brazilians bested Cameroon, 2-0, with a pair of extra-time goals in the quarterfinals.

Argentina is gunning for its second consecutive gold medal while Brazil, a five-time world champion, has never taken home Olympic gold. On paper, it could be the game of the tournament, a gold-medal match in the semifinals.

On Saturday, Messi began to showcase his attacking magic in the eighth minute with a fabulous demonstration of skill and vision. The Argentines intercepted a Dutch pass and Messi did a give-and-go with a teammate and found himself rushing in on the enemy goal alone on the left side and with goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer out of position. The player known as “The Flea” — Messi is all of 5-7 and 148 lbs. — then fired a 15-yard shot that was blocked by forward Evander Sno.

Messi made his own luck and goal in the 14th minute. He blocked a poor clearance by Calvin Jong-a-Pin about 10 yards outside the penalty area, then took it up a gear or two and raced into the box. Messi rounded Vermeer to the left side. With Jong-a-Pin guarding the left side of the area, Messi was not going to be denied this time, finding the left near post from three yards for his second goal of the tournament.

Maradona, sitting in the VIP selection with Argentine Football Federation officials, pumped his fist twice in triumph after Messi dazzled the crowd and gave his team an early lead.

Batista called Messi’s performance “fantastic.”

“Messi simply is one of the best players in the world today,” Batista added.

Every time Messi would touch the ball, whether it be in midfield or in and around the penalty area, the crowd would start cheering, adding either an oooh or an ahhhh.

“Do I think Messi was the difference between the teams?” Dutch midfielder Jonathan De Guzman said. “Well, he scored one goal and made another.”

Messi’s take on the match? Good question. The media tried to interview Messi while he walked through the mixed zone area with a lollipop in his mouth from the locker room to the team bus. He gave the thumbs up, but he never stopped to talk.

Like it or not, his celebrity will follow him around. He is not difficult to pick out in a crowd, thanks to his diminutive stature — Barcelona paid for costly treatments when Messi suffered from a serious growth hormone deficiency when he was a teenager — and flowing long, dark hair. During a plane trip that brought the Argentine Olympic team from Beijing to Shanghai Thursday, Messi was instantly recognized by soccer fans. They quickly whipped out their digital and video cameras, hoping to capture a glimpse of this man-child who has been the toast of the soccer world.

“Messi. Messi. That’s Messi?” could be heard throughout the cabin.

An Olympic volunteer traveling with the team was supposed to sit next to Messi, but an Argentine team official asked him if he could find another seat so Messi could have some more room. Messi slept for a good portion of the flight, as if he was saving his energy for the Dutch the next day.

After the Argentine team disembarked the plane, they were taken to a holding area near the baggage. A reporter-turned-photographer snapped several pictures of Messi, who feigned he was sleeping as a joke.

Some observers have taken Batista’s assessment a little further and claim that Messi is the best soccer player in the world.

“I heard people say nice things,” Messi was quoted by FourFourTwo. “Of course, I am flattered when people say that. And it would be nice to be considered that, but I don’t obsess about it.”

That’s because Messi thinks he can improve his game, something defenders and teams in Spain’s La Liga don’t necessarily want to hear.

“I’d like to shoot better with my right foot,” he told the magazine. “I’d like to take free kicks like Ronaldinho. But I thank God that I’m where I am, playing for Barcelona and Argentina.”

Messi made some international headlines as he wound up in the middle of an international tug-of-war between club and country.

Barcelona wanted him for its recent U.S. tour and for a Champions League qualifier. Even though the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor for Barcelona and several clubs, the Barcas allowed Messi to remain in China because he wanted to stay with Argentina.

The Argentina Football Association will pay a price for having the star, reportedly paying for an expensive insurance policy that would give the Spanish side a huge payoff should Messi be injured at the Summer Games. And, Messi won’t have to play certain friendly matches in the future with the National Team.

With a second consecutive gold medal on the line, no one certainly will question Messi’s decision or wisdom at the moment.

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at