Bernardo M. Villegas
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Sport Idol for My Grandnephews

           I am writing this column for my grand nephews Joaquin, Seve, Jaime, Migui, Jose, Christian, Leandro, Luis Alvaro and the others who will come after them.  They are between the ages of several weeks to thirteen years and, therefore, will be around for at least another fifty years, God willing.  That is a period long enough for the Philippines to be among the countries all over the world in which football (soccer as the Americans call it) is the premier sport.  As I mentioned in a previous column, the AZCALS have contributed much to attracting more media and public attention in general to the most popular sport in the world, except in the Philippines and the United States.  I am working with other football enthusiasts, including fathers of boys between six to twelve, to organize more family-centered football clubs in subdivisions all over Metro Manila and other key cities like Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod, Davao and Cagayan de Oro.

          Meanwhile, I want my grandnephews and other children of their ages to look up to an icon, a role model, to motivate them even more to excel in the "beautiful game."  Hopefully, I pray that this icon will not go the same way as two fallen idols, one in the field of golf and the other in cycling.  Having followed the meteoric rise of the Most Valuable Football Player in the world today over the last five years,  I can be reasonably sure that Lionel Messi will not disappoint me.  He is able to combine his superlative athletic skills with outstanding human virtues so that I can always hold him up as an example for the youth to emulate.  His Number 10 will always be a reminder to the youth of today and the years to come that an outstanding athlete can also be a virtuous man.  Some of the grandnephews I mentioned are still too young to understand the content of this article.  But I am sure their parents, my nephews and nieces, will let them know when they are old enough.

          Let me start by telling my grandnephews about what Lionel Messi, the Barca player from Argentina, has accomplished up to the present.  As reported by The Associated Press on Christmas Day of 2012 in the International Herald Tribune (p. 13), "Lionel Messi polished off his record year with his 91st and final goal of 2012 in Barcelona's 3 - 1 victory at Valladolid...Messi fed Jordi Alba, who crossed to Xavi Hernandez for Barcelona's first goal in the 43rd minute, and Messi later dribbled between a defender's legs before scoring in the 59th minute, his 35th goal of the 2012-13 season.  Expected to win the fourth FIFA Player of the Year award next month (which he did on January 8, 2013),  Messi finished 2012 with 79 goals for Barcelona:  59 in the Spanish league, 13 in the Champions League, 5 in the Copa del Rey and 2 in the Spanish Super Cup.  He had 12 for Argentina:  5 in World Cup qualifiers and 7 in exhibition games."

          The "flea", as he is called because of his diminutive size (another reason why he is an inspiration to the typical Filipino youth), has been breaking record after record.  He has already surpassed the German player, Gerd Muller's 40-year-old record of 85 goals scored in a year:  for Bayern Munich and Germany.   Just  a few weeks before that, he broke the record of Brazilian player Pele of 75 goals in a calendar year, set in 1958.  The foremost commentator on global soccer, Rob Hughes of the International Herald Tribune, waxes lyrical in celebrating Messi's accomplishments.  In his column that appeared in the IHT (November 14, 2012), Hughes exults:  "Messi, Messi, Messi.  The records fall to him like drops of sweat off the brow of those who try to keep up with him on the field. The Argentine is great.  We know that, and we do not need mathematical justification to acknowledge it.  He is a king of frequent flyer miles, too, and will make a trip to Riyadh to lead Argentina in a friendly against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, then be back to Barcelona by the weekend to start the remaining nine matches of the club's 2012 itinerary."

          Beyond arithmetic, though, I will ask my grandnephews and those of their generation to focus on the human qualities of Lionel Messi.  Despite his greatness as an athlete, he remains to be a very modest person.  He has no primadona complex.  He is the ultimate team player, just like his colleagues in the Barca team.  Comparison may be odious, but columnist Rob Hughes does not hesitate to compare when the occasion calls for it:  "Messi, in my eyes, surpasses Ronaldo (Cristiano Ronaldo is the Portuguese star player of Real Madrid, the nemesis of Barcelona) in the way that he plays for the team, in how he creates for others and, though this is a subjective opinion, in the way that he exudes contagious joy in being out on the field."  Even an amateur like me can attest to these human qualities that literally come out of the screen when you watch a match between Barca and Real Madrid (called El Clasico).

          Lionel Messi, however, has more mountains to climb.  He has not yet reached the peak of the career of a soccer player.  My grandnephews will be around to watch him in the next six or more years as he continues to play for FC Barcelona.  The challenge, however, is in his playing for the national team of Argentina.  As Rob Hughes writes, Messi cannot yet compare with his Barca teammates Xavi and Iniesta who have already won the World Cup for their Spanish team nor with Pele who  won three world cups for Brazil nor with Maradona who won a  world cup for Argentina nor with Germ Muller who won  a world cup for Germany.  I will tell my grandnephews and their friends to keep watching Messi who is only 25 years old today.  As Hughes wrote:  "There is time for him, if he sustains his fitness and desire, to go on and double the 273 goals he has scored in 346 appearances at Barca.  But he needs teammates, as all the greats did, to fill the missing element (winning the World Cup for Argentina) to his unfolding greatness."  This saga will be the most effective lesson to my grandnephews and the Filipinos of tomorrow:  that cooperation and teamwork are completely indispensable for human greatness, a truth that has not yet sunk deeply into our national consciousness.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.