(MCT) He is only 5-7, wears a schoolboy haircut and no tattoos, and is known as "La Pulga" (The Flea) back home in Argentina.
Despite his diminutive size and humble ways, there is no soccer star shining more brightly heading into the 2010 World Cup than Lionel Messi.
He is indisputably the best player in the game right now, has scored 114 goals in 199 games for Barcelona and was the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year. His superb skill and pace led him to score four goals against Arsenal and back-to-back hat tricks against Valencia and Zaragoza.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said of the Barcelona playmaker: "Once he’s on the run, Messi is unstoppable. He’s the only player who can change direction at such a pace. He’s a PlayStation player."
Argentina’s World Cup coach, Diego Maradona, to whom Messi is most compared, went a step further: "He’s at a select level, being the best in the world and a star at Barcelona. Lio is playing kick-about with Jesus. I told him I’d done my thing, now he has to make his career and at the end we’ll see who was the greatest of all-time. But he’s on the right path. He’s mature and full of will."
Whether Messi will emerge as the star of South Africa remains to be seen.
He has not shown his Barcelona form with the national team, and Argentina struggled to qualify.
"I’d love for Messi to be fantastic and score a bagful of goals, but Barcelona is a better team than Argentina, and with Maradona as manager, there are too many uncertainties," ESPN analyst Steve McManaman said.
"It’s a bit like a circus around that team. I don’t think it’s the right atmosphere for Messi to thrive. I also think Argentines don’t appreciate Messi as much as Europeans do, which is a shame, because he is their best export since Maradona."
That Messi made it to this stage is remarkable, considering his beginnings.
At age 11, he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency, and his parents feared he wouldn’t grow to a normal height.
A year later, he had made such a name for himself in the Argentine youth leagues that Barcelona invited his family to move to Spain. The team offered to pay for hormone treatment.
At 17, he made his debut for Barca. In 2006, he became the youngest Argentinean to play in a World Cup, and he scored against Serbia.
He has won every trophy there is to win in European club soccer. But his mantle lacks a World Cup trophy. Will he get it with Maradona leading the way? Stay tuned.
Other foreign players to watch at the 2010 World Cup:
Club: Manchester United
The lasting image of Wayne Rooney’s 2006 World Cup is of him being ejected from the quarterfinal against Portugal after stomping on the groin of defender Ricardo Carvalho. The English forward has a history of being a hothead, although he insists he has matured since becoming a father to son, Kai, six months ago.
If he manages to keep his cool and stays healthy, Rooney could be the star of this World Cup. Anybody who has watched him play with Manchester United knows how dangerous and magical he can be. He runs through defenders like a bull, but is extremely creative and fast and has tremendous vision. He scored nine goals in the first nine England qualifiers, finished second in the Premier League with 26 goals and scored 34 goals total for Manchester United.
Rooney has been making headlines since he scored his first Premier League goal for Everton five days before his 17th birthday, making him the youngest goal-scorer in league history at the time. That same year, he became the youngest player to wear the English national team jersey and the youngest to score for England.
F, Ivory Coast
If Drogba plays — he sustained a fractured right elbow in a friendly against Japan — he will be a handful for defenders. He is unorthodox, very athletic and can score from close or far. He also has a reputation for dramatic dives, which infuriates opponents but often leads to scoring opportunities.
He was named 2009 African Footballer of the Year, the second time in four years he won the award, and will be a crowd pleaser in South Africa. Drogba led the English Premier League with 29 goals this season, edging out Manchester United’s Rooney, who finished with 26.
Drogba is married and has three children. Perhaps his most significant achievement was helping restore peace in his country in 2006. After "The Elephants" qualified for the World Cup in Germany, Drogba made an impassioned plea with the warring sides to lay down their arms. They listened, after five years of bloodshed. For that reason, Drogba was named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine.
Club: Real Madrid
There are few players more elegant with the ball at their feet than Kaka. He exhibits great control and power, and is as comfortable passing as he is scoring. He is deceptively fast and runs circles around defenders.
Kaka, playing in his third World Cup, really only has one weakness in his game. He is too nice, and lacks the killer instinct many top players have. In fact, he is a born-again Christian and a true clean-cut sports hero.
Club: Real Madrid
The most expensive player in history has blazing speed, flair, incredible ball control and the ability to dupe defenders. He can create his own shot and is good off set pieces.
He also happens to be one of the most photographed soccer players in the world, as he is a heartthrob who has been linked with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. He appears shirtless, wearing just underwear, on the June cover of Vanity Fair.
Ronaldo has proved to be a stellar club player with Manchester United and this year with Real Madrid. But he has struggled with the Portuguese national team.
He scored zero goals in seven qualifying matches, and will not have an easy time in a tough group that includes Brazil and Ivory Coast. But if he gets hot, he could carry Portugal far.
He isn’t as flashy as other players in the Spanish league, so he isn’t as likely to make headlines. But true followers of the game know that David Villa was one of the most prolific scorers in the world over the past five years with 156 goals.
He has scored 35 goals in 55 matches for Spain, second only to Raul, who scored 44 in 102 games. And he won the Golden Boot for being the leading scorer at the 2008 European championship.
Villa is predatory around the box and has exquisite touch.
He recently moved from Valencia to Barcelona, and 35,000 Barca fans showed up to see him introduced on the field for the first time. "Illa! Illa! Illa! Villa Maravilla!" the fans chanted. Maravilla, indeed!
One big reason Italy is the defending World Cup champion is that Buffon was minding the net. He conceded only two goals the entire tournament in 2006 and had five shutouts.
The Italian is known for his great reflexes, courage, intelligence and athleticism. He is calm, consistent, makes smart decisions and rarely bobbles balls or makes errors. "San Gigi" is back for his third World Cup, and will be counted on to bolster a questionable back line.
(c) 2010, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.