Messi can win over Argentine fans at Copa America

Believe it or not, Lionel Messi has something to prove.

He needs to show Argentine fans he’s the world’s greatest soccer

player when wearing the country’s famous blue-and-white shirt.

Messi starts romancing the crowds when Argentina opens the

three-and-a-half week Copa America – the South American

championship – against Bolivia on Friday.

Messi has rarely played with the same allure for Argentina as he

has for Barcelona – and never when it counts. Argentina exited last

year’s World Cup with a humiliating 4-0 loss in the quarterfinals

to Germany. Messi didn’t score during the entire tournament.

Everything is now set for Messi to excel. An elite power without

much recent success, Argentina is the host. Messi is coming off his

greatest season at Barcelona, and new coach Sergio Batista has his

players trying to mimic the Catalan team’s style of quick passes

and possession play.

”Messi is going to have a great Copa America,” Batista said.

”Having the best player in the world means a lot, and we’ll try to

make him comfortable so he produces his best. This is an enormous

advantage.”

Messi is an outsider at home. He left Argentina for Barcelona as

a youth player, spent his formative years in Spain and has never

played for one of his country’s famed clubs.

His personality also leaves many Argentines cold. He seldom

jokes around, seems uncomfortable speaking and lacks the charisma

of Diego Maradona. Known in Spanish as ”La Pulga” (The Flea),

Messi has yet to lift a trophy for his country of birth.

”It’s been awhile since Argentina has won an important title,”

Messi said. ”We need some joy for ourselves and our fans.”

Carlos Tevez is likely to be the other main scoring threat for

Argentina. Known affectionately as ”Carlitos,” he’s the country’s

most popular player and is the opposite of Messi. Tevez starred for

Boca Juniors, grew up poor in a Buenos Aires shantytown and never

stops smiling.

Argentina’s last major international title was in 1993, the Copa

America. The last of its two World Cup titles was in 1986, and its

club scene is a mess.

River Plate, which has won more league titles than anyone, was

relegated to the second division last week, sparking riots between

hooligans and 2,200 police. The area around River Plate’s

Monumental Stadium – where the Copa America final will be played

July 24 – turned into a smoldering war zone and was closed for

several days while a prosecutor opened an investigation.

The club said this week it has begun making repairs after

hooligans ransacked concession areas, ripped out seats and smashed

fixtures in toilets.

”The way the stadium was left was shocking,” prosecutor

Gustavo Galante said.

Security officials say 2,000 police have been assigned to

Friday’s opening match between Argentina and Bolivia.

On the field, Brazil is still Argentina’s biggest worry.

The Brazilians have defeated Argentina in the past two Copa

America finals, and have won four of the last five titles.

Argentina is a slight favorite this time, adding even more

pressure.

Brazil, which was also knocked out of the World Cup in the

quarterfinals, is missing Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Ronaldinho and

Adriano. This team is rebuilding and will be led by youngsters such

as Neymar, Alexandre Pato, Lucas and Paulo Henrique Ganso.

Argentina and Brazil seem certain to advance from the group

stage, and the real action will start in the quarterfinals of July

16 and 17.

Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Colombia are considered long shots,

with Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela given little chance.

Also included are Mexico and Costa Rica, which are playing as

invited teams to increase the field to 12. Both have arrived with

youth teams instead of the senior sides that played in the recent

Gold Cup.

Mexico defeated the United States 4-2 in that final of that

regional championship. Eight players from the Copa America squad

were suspended Tuesday for breaking training rules.

Costa Rica replaced Japan, which withdrew after the March 11

earthquake and tsunami.