NEW YORK – Most of Lionel Messi's steps toward soccer immortality take place far away from the United States. Europe is the centerpiece of the sport and Messi spends most of his time in the midst of it, trying to help club team Barcelona continue its relentless accumulation of glories.
However, according to his national team coach Sergio Batista, Saturday's friendly between Argentina and the United States at New Meadowlands Stadium will say a lot about the development of the world's best player. Not so much as a player, but as an international icon.
Batista took charge of Argentina last summer following its World Cup campaign, one which began with great promise and ended with a humiliating quarterfinal defeat to Germany. Messi went into the event with expectations so huge they could never be fulfilled. But even by his own admission, his performance was below his best.
Yet with each passing week in Spain, where he has scored 45 goals for Barcelona this season and is hungrily hunting the La Liga and Champions League title double, his reputation grows. Few argued with his World Footballer of the Year award last year, and the comparisons these days are more with the greats of the past than the pretenders of the present.
Which is why Batista feels that New York – and this weekend's game – matters.
"It is going to be interesting to see the reaction," said Batista in a press briefing earlier this week. "Everywhere we go, [Messi] gets a huge response in accordance with his ability. America is a little different in soccer. There is not the same level of interest as other places in the world.
"But we are hearing that there have been a lot of tickets sold, and we still expect a lot of interest in our team and of course in him. If you can get America and New York to take notice of you, then you really are a big celebrity."
Batista is not wrong when it comes to tickets. Sales have been vibrant ever since the game was announced, and more than 60,000 have already been snapped up. A sellout is expected, plenty of those fans sure to be wearing the blue and white of Argentina.
Messi could end up playing 60 games this season, and an international friendly – albeit in front of a huge crowd – is not going to be high on his list of priorities. His inclusion, however, is a real boost for the U.S. soccer public, which should greet him enthusiastically.
It's easy to forget that he's just 23 years old, such is the constant talk of his legacy. An obvious and favorite analysis of respective abilities is with Diego Maradona, the best Argentine player in history, perhaps the best ever, and Argentina's former coach until its World Cup exit. Batista is happy to entertain such talk.
"Messi is on the way to becoming the best footballer in history," he said. "If one looks into the future, Lionel has everything. Maradona was one of the greatest, without a doubt. But Messi right now is the best in the world, and we have to take advantage of that."
America gets its glimpse of Messi on Saturday, and it is going to be a treat. He is a remarkable concoction of the silkiest of skills: a tiny man with lightning feet and a mischievous mind once he gets hold of the ball.
USA head coach Bob Bradley has the task of trying to figure out a way to stop a player that he is also a huge fan of. "Some players are just on the kind of level where you have huge admiration for them above anything else," Bradley told Yahoo! Sports recently. "Messi is one of those. Would I pay to watch him? Without a doubt."
The United States will be the home team on Saturday but whatever the result, this is going to be the Lionel Messi show, a headliner with a supporting cast of 21 other players. Greatness commands such respect.
- Lionel Messi
- Sergio Batista