Bernardo M. Villegas
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World Player of the Year

          I couldn't have been luckier. Out of the three times in my entire life I have ever watched a live soccer game in a football stadium, one just happened to be that unforgettable match between Barca and Getafe in the Nou Camp of Barcelona where Lionel Messi made history. Equaling, if not surpassing, Diego Maradona's second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, Messi--voted World Player of the Year in 2009--thrilled 80,000 fans and subsequently millions of YouTube viewers with a slalom and finish against Getafe that one spring evening in 2007. Ever since that night, I have been a confirmed fan of Barca and especially of the "Little Man from Argentina," Lionel Messi. My loyalty was severely tested in 2007 to 2008, when Barca reached abysmal lows in its performance. Even the most die-hard Barca fans, like my mentor in soccer Jaume V., were disgusted with the behavior of the star player then, Ronaldinho, who ended up being sold to AC Milan. The former coach also had to leave. There was even a threat from the Club members to oust the President of the Club, Joan La Porta.

          Fortunately, that is now history. Today, Barca is at the peak of soccer glory. In the year that just ended, the Barcelona team garnered all the trophies available to one club in a given year: the Spanish National League, the King's Cup, the League of Champions, the Supercup, the European Supercup and the World Club Cup. As a commentator of the International Herald Tribune remarked: "Barca has raised the game back to beauty."

          Much of the spectacular success of the Barca team in 2009 can be attributed to its coach, Pep Guardiola, who was himself a Barca player in the 1990s. He has been able to perfect the team work among the players. Without this team spirit, frequently referred to as the "Barca style," not even Messi can lead the team to one victory after another. Pundits have contrasted the effectiveness of Messi when playing for Barca to his lackluster performance as part of the national team of Argentina that was almost disqualified from the World Cup of 2010. The coach of the Argentina national team--Diego Maradona--has been widely criticized for not being able to forge a team among his players.

          It still remains to be seen whether Barca will capture once again the championship of the Spanish League by defeating its foremost rival, Real Madrid, in 2010. Defenders of Barca say that Real Madrid can buy the best players like Ronaldo and Kaka. What it cannot buy is the renowned style of Barca, product of a unique training program called La Masia where players like Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets have been schooled in the art of football since their teens. 

          While residing in Barcelona for about two years, I used to pass frequently by La Masia on my way home from work. I lived in an apartment in the district called Les Corts, almost right across the football stadium Camp Nou. I could see these youngsters--most of them in their early teens--practising assiduously the Barca style. Not a few times, I saw Messi himself playing with the trainees. I was especially struck by the low average height of the players. In fact, I learned later that Messi had to be given growth hormones. Even then, he is no taller than the average Filipino male.

          That brings me back to my campaign to promote soccer as the prime national sport of the Philippines. We are a nation of physical midgets (at least compared to players like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasul). We can never aspire to global leadership in basketball. With the proper training like that in La Masia, however, our youngsters can follow the footsteps of Lionel Messi.

          Another reason for promoting more soccer is the greater role played by team spirit in soccer than in basketball, at least from my limited understanding of the two sports. As illustrated by the example of Messi producing different results in Barca as compared to the Argentina national team, the spirit of cooperation spells the difference. A "buaya" (a solo player) can still win a basketball game for his team. Not so in football.

          We all know how much team work is lacking among our national leaders, despite our famed "bayanihan spirit." A greater passion for soccer among our youth may just help our future leaders learn how to work for the common good. For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.