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Sao Paulo scuffle shows Messi is finally taking on Maradona’s mantle

While chaos reigned at Arena Corinthians on Sunday, one man stood out in his attempts to bring order to proceedings.

Shirtless and, for some inexplicable reason, wearing a photographer’s vest, Lionel Messi stormed from one end of the stadium to the other, putting across Argentina’s version of events and ensuring that Brazilian authorities’ efforts to apprehend four of his team-mates would not prosper.

There might have been time to share a few jokes with both his colleagues and close friends from the other side like Neymar and Dani Alves, but the Albiceleste captain was for the most part all business, as he demanded to know the reasons behind one of the most scandalous events in recent South American football history.

“The whole world is watching,” he implored amid the confusion, eager as ever to take the field and do what he does best, just play football. “Either we all play, or none of us play.”

Ultimately the latter occurred, as Brazil and Argentina’s World Cup qualifier was suspended after just five minutes, but Messi’s status as the standard-bearer for an entire nation was not hurt in the slightest.

Indeed, the way he remonstrated with and cajoled the powers-that-be was reminiscent of a national hero of yesteryear, and that is perhaps no coincidence.

More and more, Messi appears to be stepping into that enormous vacuum left by Diego Maradona’s passing – and it is a role that for the first time in his career, he is happy to accept.

read also:Messi couldn’t have stayed at Barca with Griezmann exit – Laporta

Certainly, be it conscious or not, the transformation of the Paris Saint-Germain star since he pulled on Diego’s Newell’s Old Boys shirt in a touching gesture of tribute last year has been startling.

Within the confines of the game, of course, little has changed: Messi remains a formidable threat to any defence on earth, and at both club and international level he still delights in taking apart opponents of any shape and calibre.

The Rosario-born wizard’s character, though, used to mark him out as a more subdued figure than his larger-than-life predecessor.

“With Messi you are always ready to applaud him, with Diego you used to be ready to celebrate,” veteran ex-Colombia coach Francisco Maturano explained to Super Deportivo Radio in one of the most eloquent comparisons of the two stars.

“Diego is a party, Messi is tenderness, he is science, an exquisite perfume. Diego is the neighbourhood.

“Diego was something else, the hometown boy, everybody’s friend, he did not stop at leading us or giving us his perfumed football, but as a friend he was there to defend you at any time, you don’t forget that.

“They are different people, with different sensibilities.”

To judge by recent events, that wonderful parallel may be losing strength. For years, Messi was almost a silent actor in international colours, which made his outburst against Brazil and CONMEBOL in the “corrupt” 2019 Copa America so shocking.

Two years down the line, that unforeseen conversion from shrinking violet to union shop steward seems to be complete.

Whether he is going toe-to-toe with the heavy-hitting giants of Colombia and matching their every insult, like back in July’s Copa semi-final, or staring down health agents who dared to invade the pitch – his territory – and interrupt the game he loves more than anything in the world, this Messi, like Diego before him, refuses to accept disrespect or nonsense from anyone.

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