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Messi's global following grows

Updated: 2014-07-03 07:21
By Associated Press in Sao Paulo ( China Daily)

 Messi's global following grows

Argentina's Angel di Maria celebrates his winning goal against Switzerland on Tuesday. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

Argentine superstar continues to deliver on soccer's biggest stage

Lionel Messi fell, then jumped back to his feet with a little help from the gentlemanly Swiss player who knocked him down.

This happened all afternoon because Argentina is still a one-man show at this World Cup, attracting the full attention of every opponent.

Tackled, pushed or fouled practically every time he touched the ball, the feisty 5-foot-5 Messi forcefully hit the ground again and again.

Argentina's leader made one last run on exhausted, beat-up legs to help send his team back to the World Cup quarterfinals with a captivating 1-0 extra-time victory over Switzerland on Tuesday.

Messi made a burst down the middle and passed from the top of the 18-yard box to set up Angel di Maria's goal in the 118th minute.

"First of all, I don't know whether I deserved this one or not, but what's important is that we moved on to the next stage," Messi said when honored as man of the match. "It was difficult. We knew it was going to be a hard match."

The Swiss swarmed Messi from every angle, and his chances were few, but he still delivered the key pass with his nation on the brink.

That is the respect factor the diminutive forward brings each time he pulls on the uniform, and it was on full display under sunny skies at Corinthians Arena.

"We know Messi in one second can decide a match," Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said.

This World Cup is all about Messi, Brazil-style. Now there's more: Argentina will face Belgium in the quarterfinals on Saturday in Brasilia.

But the Messi phenomenon has traveled far beyond Buenos Aires and Argentina. In North America, Europe and Africa he ranks among the most recognized faces in all of sport. On Tuesday, one fan held a poster of Rio de Janeiro's famous Christ the Redeemer statue with Messi's head on it.

As soon as the animated Argentines were allowed inside the stadium, about 2 1/2 hours before kickoff, the chants of "Messi! Messi!" began in earnest, and when he led La Albiceleste out of the tunnel, tens of thousands were dancing, singing and waving flags in the stands. He hugged the youngster who had the good fortune of walking hand in hand with him onto the pitch.

In the game's 10th minute, a huge section of Argentines erupted into their trademark chant: "With the hand of Lionel Messi, we're going to be champions!"

Messi, who turned 27 on June 24, scored four of his team's six goals to help Argentina capture top spot in Group F. Those performances helped erase some of the sting of going without a goal in South Africa four years ago, when Argentina lost 4-0 to Germany in the quarterfinals.

Diego Maradona, the former Argentine coach who led the country to its last World Cup title as a player in 1986 in Mexico City, said he considers Messi the best player in the world, regardless of whether he wins a World Cup.

Now, Messi's special 2014 run rolls on as Argentina chases its third championship. The Argentines also captured the 1978 title by beating the Netherlands at home in Buenos Aires.

"All of Argentina is very happy," defender Ezequiel Garay said.

'NERVOUS' CAPTAIN SHOOK OFF JITTERS

Lionel Messi said he was nervous during Argentina's "lucky" World Cup win over Switzerland on Tuesday, but urged his team to make the most of its reprieve.

The captain finally shook off his jitters and figured out the Swiss defense deep into extra-time, two minutes from penalties, and deftly set up Angel di Maria for the game's only goal.

Messi said the pressure-packed win, in front of tens of thousands of Argentine fans, could stand his team in good stead later in the tournament.

"Suffering, suffering that's what I felt, but now we know we can go through times like this," he said. "We were lucky; we had luck on our side and now we have to take advantage of it and move on."

Argentina will play Belgium in the quarterfinals on Saturday, going for a third World Cup title on the soil of archrival Brazil.

"Just like everyone else, I imagine, at times I was nervous because we couldn't score a goal and any mistake would have put us out of the World Cup," Messi said.

"We didn't want penalties and so we wanted to win it in extra-time. For the goal, I thought maybe I should take a chance. And then I saw Angel on the right and I passed to him and fortunately we were able to score."

The Barcelona star was named man of the match for the fourth successive time by online voters, ahead of di Maria who had 10 shots on target - more than the entire Swiss team.

"I don't know whether I deserve this one (award) or not, but what's important is that we've made it to the next stage, which is what we wanted," Messi said.

 

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