“When he has the ball one-on-one, you’re dead. That’s why I never like the individual, man-to-man (defence) against Messi. You have to create a cage to limit him.” – José Mourinho, manager of Associazione Sportiva Roma professional football club, on facing Lionel Andrés Messi.
International soccer great Lionel Andrés Messi has built an extraordinary career out of making magical plays on the soccer field that surprise, stun, and even shock fans and his fellow players alike. Watching the way Messi plays football, as myself in China and much of the rest of the world outside the U.S. calls the sport, is one of my most enjoyable pastimes and has made him my idol since I was a small boy.
His football talents are without peer. No one knows what Messi’s next move on the pitch will be.
Many of the plays he makes are full of imagination and only made possible by skills that are so exceptional he will leave even his fiercest opponents slack-jawed. Like the time he took the ball to his chest and let it fall to his foot, where he kicked it over his head and above the hands of the leaping goalkeeper, into the net. Or weaving and dodging through defender after defender, leaving them tangled with each other or tripped up over their own two feet in what can make the opposition look like the Keystone Kops lying in his wake as he storms downfield to the goal, shooting the ball himself or dishing to a teammate.
It’s pure magic flowing from the left foot of the “Eagle of Pampas,’’ one of the nicknames bestowed on Messi that is reserved for only a very few Argentinian sports heroes. The name comes from what are known as the Pampas, the vast and fertile grass lowlands of Argentina, and the beautiful and striking eagle that soars over them.
He not only performs these amazing technical feats, but he does so with a high level of football intelligence. We usually see Messi, who has traditionally played the left wing midfielder position, in the right place at the right time to finish the goal; or watch the ball that he passes to a teammate make an incredible arc in the air to land perfectly at the striker’s foot. That is the beauty of the game and Messi paints as beautiful a picture on the pitch as any who have ever played it.
At the same time, Messi’s story encourages many children around the world. First, he is a grateful man. Like many people, his life was full of ups and downs. It began early for him, with a diagnosis of dwarfism as a child in his native Argentina. Later, because of his small size resulting from his condition, he was not favoured by his coaches in Spain, where he had moved with his family as a young child, trading the light blue and white tricolour of the Argentine flag for Spain’s red and gold tricolour. But his grandmother believed Messi was a talented footballer. With her constant encouragement, he continued to work on his skills. His gifted play got everyone’s attention when he competed in his first match.
He was later spotted by Barcelona’s youth team, who took him on and paid for his medical treatments for dwarfism. Messi’s grandmother continued to encourage him every step of the way. She was one of the most important people in establishing his football career. Even today, Messi’s signature celebration after a score is to point his hands to the sky in honour of his grandmother, then crossing himself in prayer.
Another Messi trait that I greatly admire is that he plays an honourable game and never gives up. Unlike many footballers, Messi doesn’t go down in fake pain after being fouled – or pretending to be fouled – in the penalty area. Instead, he chooses to spring back up from the turf, his passion never wavering in his attack as he works feverishly to kick the ball into the goal. His indomitable spirit is one we could benefit from emulating in our own lives. His honour, dignity, and passion for the game serve as a role model for many, including myself.
Finally, his great loyalty is worthy of great praise. Despite his wealth and fame, Messi has never been known to have affairs in his life. His devotion and love for his wife and family are qualities that many celebrities lack. His sense of loyalty extends beyond his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, who he’s known since childhood, and the couple’s three young children, to include his football family. He played for FC Barcelona for 21 years, always mindful of how the club took care of his medical bills earlier in his life and gave him the chance to play the sport he loved. He has never accepted an offer from another club in all his time at Barcelona, even going so far as to take a pay cut to extend his contract for the sake of the club’s development.
Unfortunately, the great Messi’s loyalty wasn’t returned late in his storied career, as Barcelona sent him to Paris Saint-Germain last year over the club’s financial problems. Long known as the “King of Camp Nou’’ for the stadium where he performed his football acrobatics in Barcelona, he wasn’t even given a proper ceremony in the beloved kingdom where he once roamed. Instead, he was only allowed a standard news conference, where he broke down and cried over his separation from the team and his legion of fans. Those fans, myself included, were laid low by this treatment. We were outraged over the club’s betrayal of one of the greatest and most loyal footballers ever to lace up a pair of cleats.
Messi’s qualities continue to inspire and influence my life. I have imagined for the umpteenth time that the sky at the World Cup in Qatar later this year would smile down at Messi and turn Argentine blue. Victory for Messi in Qatar would set right his treatment by Barcelona and be a proper thanks from the football world for all he has given it. The spirit of the “Eagle of Pampas’’ would be free to once again soar in the night breeze at Camp Nou.