PRETORIA - Diego Maradona, the greatest footballer of his era, said on Friday he hoped his World Cup ace Lionel Messi would come to be regarded as the best player ever.
"I wish with all my heart for Lio to have a superb tournament and be the best of all time definitively," Argentina's coach told a packed news conference.
"I'd love Lio to have the same impact (in this World Cup) that I had in (19)86, the same key role I had in 86," he said referring to when he captained Argentina to their second title in Mexico.
"But behind Lio there's a team that supports him. He should be the cherry on the cake," he said in a room below the stands of the Loftus Versfeld Stadium that was inadequate for the media circus that follows Maradona.
Messi, who has been compared with Maradona, will enter the pantheon of footballing greats if he inspires Argentina to their third world title in South Africa.
After Messi's exploits with Barcelona, media and fans have been waiting for him to show similar brilliance playing for his country.
Asked if he planned to use Messi for the full 90 minutes in all Argentina's matches given the exhausting season he has had, Maradona said: "It depends on how the matches turn out.
"Messi has come from playing 63 matches and (Barcelona coach Pep) Guardiola would take Xavi off and not Messi (in a substitution).
"He knows very well that he is decisive, that at any moment he can create a goal situation. If the match is settled, logically I will (take him off to) save him for the next."
Argentina's physical fitness trainer said this week Messi was tired and it was too late to try to freshen him for the tournament, adding he had to be paced through training.
The finals kick off on Friday with hosts South Africa playing Mexico in Group A, while Argentina make their bow on Saturday against Nigeria in the opening Group B match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. They also face South Korea and Greece.
"Tomorrow we start to build the dream that we've had in us for a long time," Maradona said."