Bernardo M. Villegas
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An Icon for the Young

           It was worth waking up at 2:00 a.m. to watch live the best soccer player in the world, Lionel Messi, and his teammates in the best soccer club in the world triumph over the best English team in the finals of the Champions League last May 29.  Unsurprisingly, Messi scored only one of the three goals of his team because he was busy helping the other Barca players like Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa do their own thing.  At age 23, already idolized by billions of soccer fans all over the world, this Argentine player with the typical height of a Filipino (5ft 7in short), is one of the most unassuming celebrities that have ever walked on this planet.  I had watched him in his home stadium, Camp Nou, play with some of the best football clubs in the world.  I had seen him practise, together with some of the aspiring youth training--like he did--at the famous residential soccer school called La Masia as I walked home from my place of work.  This was one of the fringe benefits of my having taught for two years at the IESE Business School in Barcelona. I had some close encounters with someone who is emerging as a rival to  Pele and Maradona as the greatest footballer of all time. But even more important to me, I have seen a world celebrity who has retained his humility and spirit of service which can be an example to the youth of the world today.

       Thanks to Ronald Ren, a German writer based in Barcelona, we have a brief biographical profile of this wonder boy of soccer.  In a feature article that appeared in the Financial Times (May 28-29, 2011) Mr. Ren described the debut of a 17-year-old substitute in a game that Barcelona played with Espanyol way in 2004.  Back then, Messi was unknown and recently minted at the La Masia school.  What did Mr. Ren and the 35,000 other Barca fans see on that fateful night:  "There's nothing happening here, we might as well go home.  He (Messi) ran out on to the pitch. And then the atmosphere took on a new note:  a murmuring laugh rose from the throats of the spectators, who didn't even realize that they were laughing, that they had lost the power of speech altogether.  Before anyone could so much as string a thought together, Lionel Messi, the young man in the number 30 shirt, had done the physically impossible.  With two of Espanyols' defenders, and no space whatsoever, in front of him, he simply dribbled between them, the ball stuck to his feet like a sixth toe." For the last seven years, this scene would be repeated countless times so that today's Barca coach, Pep Guardiola, would say:  "Messi is the only footballer who can run faster with the ball than without it."  Let me say that in the spring of 2007, I saw Messi live evading, not only two but six defenders, coming from midfield to make a goal against Getape.  This amazing feat has had millions of hits in YouTube and has been compared to what his fellow Argentine Maradona had done several decades before.

        As narrated by Mr. Ren, Messi was only 13 when he first appeared on the training pitch of La Masia.  He was literally a little tyke, just about 4 ft 8 in tall.  There were nine-year-olds taller  than he was. It was precisely his short stature that had brought him to Barcelona.  A doctor from his hometown, Rosario in Argentina, had prescribed him growth hormones, without which the doctor said he would never reach above 5 ft.  The treatment cost $900 a month.  That was beyond the means of his father who was a steelworker.  They were advised that they should look for a football club somewhere else in the world willing to share the cost in order to capitalize  on Leo's talent which was already obvious even in his young age.  To use a cliche, the rest is history.

       Messi has an admirable detachment from the trappings of fame and glory, unlike the prima donnas of football today.   As Mr. Ren wrote, "the only thing that interests him about football is the moment he is playing it.  Messi doesn't pay any attention to the names of his opponents; he barely remembers his own games no matter how good they were, and rarely watches football on television--he quickly gets bored with it . . . He has metamorphosed seamlessly from child into supreme sportsman.  How can he be expected in such a short period of time, to have reached the kind of maturity that will enable him to cope with such a transformation?  When he has to talk about himself, he still likes to begin the sentence with 'I am a person who...'  This nicely demonstrates the reserve he has to overcome.  He often wears tracksuits because "I don't like going shopping'."   Considering that he is one of the highest paid players in his sport today, his having avoided the vice of consumerism speaks volumes about his character.

        In his own way, he is evolving into a leader.  In Ren's words, "He is still somewhat childlike but now, at 23, when he stands before us to speak at the Camp Nou, there is no mistaking that--in his uncharismatic, introspective way--he has become what he doesn't want to be, a leader.  'I don't believe in that word,' he says.  And yet quietly, shyly, he has taken up the challenge of the lead role at Barca, against his natural inclination.  He has chosen the easiest and at the same time the hardest way:  he leads through his deeds. 'I've always been the smallest on the pitch.  I don't give directions.  I don't talk a lot.  When I have something to say, I express myself with the ball.' " What an example that our Azcals players should emulate if they want to be word class players that deserve to qualify for the World Cup in 2014!  Also what an example we should present to all young Filipinos, whatever their occupations or professions:  an example of an outstanding commitment to excellence that is devoid of egoism and narcissism.  Lionel Messi is another reason why we should cultivate a wider interest in soccer among the Filipino youth.  As they follow the world of soccer all over the world, they would inevitably be exposed to an icon that is refreshingly different from many media and entertainment personalities that hug the headlines today. For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.