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Time is Now for Messi

Argentina line-up: Romero, Garay, Zabaleta, Biglia, Perez, Higuaín, Messi, Mascherano, Demichelis, Rojo, Lavezzi
Netherlands line-Up: Cillessen, Vlaar, De Vrij, Martins Indi, Blind, De Jong, Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, Kuyt, Wijnaldum

From the hand of God to the foot of The Flea, Argentina’s cult of personality has birthed a pair of once-in-a-generation soccer talents. We all know how it turned out for Diego Maradona, captain of Argentina’s World Cup champion in 1986 and widely considered one of the best ever.

But the script is still largely unwritten for 27-year-old Lionel Messi. Yes, La Pulga, or “The Flea,” has dominated the soccer world during his FC Barcelona tenure. The World Cup is a different story: Argentina suffered quarterfinal losses to Germany in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.

Saturday’s 1-0 win over Belgium put Argentina into the semis for the first time since 1990 – Maradona’s heyday. Messi, who has four goals and one assist for 5-0 Argentina, didn’t score against Belgium. But he did set up the lone goal, a fired by Gonzalo Higuain in the 8th minute.

Now Argentina faces the Netherlands in the 2014 FIFA World Cup semifinal Wednesday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN-TV) at Arena de Sao Paulo in Brazil. All eyes – especially those of Netherland’s defenders – will be on Messi. With Brazil’s Neymar lost to injury, there is just one transcendent player left capable of taking over this World Cup.

And there will be more pressure than you’d might expect on Messi now that Argentine striker Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid) will be sidelined after suffering a right thigh strain against Belgium.

No team made a bigger statement during group play than the Netherlands. The Dutch blasted reigning World Cup champion Spain 5-1 in the opener, a stunning sign that this World Cup would follow a different path. And yet some things remain the same. The Netherlands, which needed penalty kicks to get past upstart Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, is looking for a repeat of 2010 when it reached the final.

The Dutch (4-0-1) have poured in 12 goals in five matches. Manchester United striker Robin van Persie, the 10th highest scorer in Premier League history, has lived up to his billing with three goals and two assists. So has another veteran in Arjen Robben (3 goals/1 assist).

Even though the US has been eliminated, America will be watching. Argentina-Belgium drew 5.1 million TV viewers on ABC while the Netherlands-Costa Rice duel on ESPN delivered 5.79 million viewers. Univision’s broadcasts drew an additional 3.63 million and 5.13 million viewers, respectively.

The World Cup has been all the rage on social media too. The hashtag #nailart has blown up on Instagram, with more than 10 million posts in the past week, much of them featuring manicured talons festooned with nationalistic colors. FIFA’s official Instagram account has 800,000 followers and growing. http://instagram.com/fifaworldcup Its Twitter account has 2.7 million followers. https://twitter.com/FIFAWorldCup And even the ball has an official account, with 3 million fans. https://twitter.com/brazuca

The winner today will face Germany Sunday, a team that delivered a historic 7-1 blowout vs Brazil Tuesday.
Tell us: Even with the U.S. eliminated, do you still plan to watch the World Cup? Add your comments below.

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