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Passionate Messi ready to join Maradona in the pantheon

By Javier Leira

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are great Argentine footballers with very different personalities but "Leo" became "Diego" for a brief moment when he scored in the World Cup group game against Bosnia.

The normally introverted Messi celebrated the goal, his first at a World Cup for eight years, with a primeval scream reminiscent of the raw passion that made Maradona such an idol at home.

While Maradona used to draw attention to himself as a player and in his private life, Messi is a shy character who shines on the pitch and prefers to maintain a low profile in his personal life and keep media appearances to a minimum.

Maradona still revels in the glory of leading Argentina to their second World Cup victory almost 30 years ago, while Messi dreams of inspiring them to a third on Sunday. If he does, he will become one of the all-time great players alongside his ex-coach and former Brazil forward Pele.

Messi always tried to avoid comparisons with Maradona, although that was going to be an impossible task.

"I don't want to in the World Cup with Argentina so people say that I'm better than Pele or Maradona. I just want to achieve that with my fellow players on the national team. Some Barca players won the World Cup and I want to know how does it feel," Messi said in a recent interview with ESPN.

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Messi's career, and his life, could not be more different to those of Maradona who grew up in a poor slum in Buenos Aires.

He caught the public eye for the first time when he was 10 years old and told a TV show: "I've got two dreams. First playing in a World Cup, and then winning the World Cup."

Messi was often criticized at home because he moved to Spain at the age of 11 to join Barcelona’s academy system, and he was perceived as not being as committed to the national team as he should have been.

In 1986 Maradona led Argentina to the world title in Mexico and from that moment his explosive character emerged and his brilliant performances on the field were interspersed with scandals off it.

He struggled for years with drug problems and was embroiled in disputes with FIFA and fatherhood scandals. One of his most memorable outbursts was an incident in which he shot at journalists on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

In the last decade, he became a friend of late Venezuela president Hugo Chavez and Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro, among other left-wing politicians.

Messi regularly shone in Spain but struggled to repeat those performances for Argentina. He is a four-times world player of the year but has never won a major title with his country. His Olympic gold medal is not really recognized by Argentineans.

Four years ago in South Africa, the two men came together at the last World Cup when Maradona guided Argentina to the last eight as coach in a disappointing tournament for Messi in which he failed to score in five matches.

"Messi is the best player in the world," Maradona said then, a phrase he has repeated several times since and he gave his compatriot another glowing endorsement on Friday ahead of the final against Germany.

"Messi will score twice on Sunday and we will win the World Cup," Maradona said on his television show.

"If he wants to get in front of me I'll prepare the red carpet for him. The team with the best player will win tomorrow and we have him."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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