Generational shift sees Iturbe shoulder weight of comparison to Leo not Diego

South American football writer Ed Malyon tells the tale of Argentina's next not particularly big thing...

February 18, 2011 - young winger Juan Manuel Iturbe finally makes his bow at the highest level in South American football, the Copa Libertadores. A talent already much discussed - and fought over - he’s introduced at half-time for former Bayern Munich midfielder Julio Dos Santos.

Barely two minutes later, he has slid the ball past Colo Colo’s helpless goalkeeper following some dazzling interplay and some tight dribbling. By the end of the game, he has bagged a brace and guaranteed that the media would be going into overdrive the next morning, and that they were. Pictures of the young winger were accompanied by “the Paraguayan Messi” or the “Guarani Messi”.

At five feet six and a half inches tall, the Cerro Porteño winger is half an inch shorter than the miniscule Barcelona star, but as la pulga has shown in Europe, size doesn’t always matter. The comparisons between the two seem inevitable upon watching Iturbe play; his small frame - draped in red and blue - gliding effortlessly past players, the ball seemingly glued to his feet, his talents are certainly similar, and ability-wise it could be that he’s not far behind.

The weight of comparison

It’s the moniker itself of “the new Messi” though, that is just as interesting in many ways, as the exciting potential of yet another South American forward.

With the decline of Diego Maradona’s glittering international career and eventually its shameful end through a positive drugs test at USA ’94, the Argentinean (and world) media have been searching for the Albiceleste’s next star, someone who could replace the irreplaceable in the number 10 shirt.

“The New Maradona” title has proved to be as much an unrivalled compliment as an inescapable curse.

The first player labelled thus was playmaker Diego Latorre, following his key role in a Boca Juniors championship side and Argentina’s successful 1991 Copa America campaign, he moved to Fiorentina with Gabriel Batistuta.

Whilst Batigol went on to become an enormous success in Europe, Latorre made just two appearances at the Florence club before moving onto Tenerife, and then Salamanca. Following an unsuccessful stint in Europe, he returned home to Argentina, where he finished his career in a rather muted fashion, a harsh contrast to the fanfare with which he’d left those same shores.

This same path would be followed by many others burdened with the expectation of filling the boots of El Diez, but to differing degrees. While Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Javier Saviola and Pablo Aimar will be able to claim some success in Europe, none came close to the feats of Maradona at Napoli.

Others were even less fortunate, Andres D’Alessandro roamed around mid-level European clubs for five years before returning to South America with Internacional of Porto Alegre. Carlos Marinelli had even less success, with just a handful of goals from his time in Europe, he now plays his football in the Peruvian first division.

The significance of Iturbe being labelled “the new Messi” is that it’s a changing of the guard for a nation where their football team has long since been their biggest source of pride. Messi, himself “the new Maradona” just a few years ago, has accomplished so much in the intervening period that his are the new boots to fill - and he's not even vacated them yet...

A tale of two boys

Like the tale of Messi, that of Iturbe’s career and development is unusual.

Born in Buenos Aires to Paraguayan parents, he moved back to his native Paraguay aged five. Juan Manuel Iturbe made his club debut at 16 for Cerro Porteño against Libertad on June 28th, 2009. He had come through the age groups with Paraguay’s youth team and was capped in a senior friendly against Chile in 2009.

What followed were a couple of disagreements that perhaps cast doubts over his attitude. First, Iturbe fell out with the powers-that-be in Paraguayan football and their counterparts in Buenos Aires pounced. “The New Messi” declared his international career with Paraguay a closed book and stated he would only represent the Albiceleste in future. The kid is highly rated though, to the extent that Diego Maradona (yes, him again) took him the World Cup in South Africa so that he could train with the squad.

Directly after this, there was a contract dispute at club level which led to him spending a few months with Quilmes in his [ahem] native Argentina. The legal wrangling however, prevented him from playing a game in the local league and in January 2011 he announced that he’d signed a pre-contract agreement with FC Porto, effective from July. In the meantime, he returned to play for his previous employers in Paraguay where he helped them to a surprise semi-final.

His incorporation into the national setup also suggests a shift towards a pragmatism from the AFA (Asociación de Futbol Argentino), whereas they’ve seen plenty of Argentinean players defecting to other countries in recent years at international level: including Lucas Barrios, Mauro Camoranesi and Guillermo Franco, they’ve pulled out all the stops to get a Paraguayan winger on board.

At just 18, it is impossible to say whether Iturbe will ever match the ability of Messi or Maradona, but if he does then who is to say that we won’t be talking about “the New Iturbe” in years to come?