As a thirteen year old his family was given opportunity to move to Europe so that he could receive hormone growth treatment. This was in 2000. Lionel Messi has since surpassed the troubles he had as a tiny kid, too short, too frail; a genius in disguise. For those who do not follow football; it is fair to sum up a few things about Lionel Messi. He plays soccer for European League champions, Barcelona. In his last 100 games he has scored 97 goals- which means on average he nets one in every contest.
Last week he scored five goals in a match against German’s Leverkusen. This is a record. I am slightly opposed to those who say he is better than Diego Maradona or the great Pele. They are all good and basically are heroes of their circumstances and periods.
Pele won the World Cup three times...(sometimes the criticism that he isn't the best has racist under currents)
Pele once alleged that had he been playing these times he would have scored three goals (hat-trick) in each match since players are more protected with yellow cards, goal kicks and tough rules on the pitch. In 1966 Pele was practically kicked out of the World Cup in London. Despite being constantly fouled Pele scored 92 hat tricks and more than 1,000 goals in his entire career.
Messi has won World Player of the year in last three seasons and a total of 18 trophies for Barcelona. A pleasure to watch- smooth and relaxed like legendary French Algerian, Zidenine Zidane; strong on both feet and in air similar to Pele and a strong skilful dribbler cruising past defenders with ease and stealth akin to Diego Maradona.
Diego Maradona shining in the 1980's...
But what impresses me more is the man’s character, his attitude, his personality.
Most professional footballers today are millionaires and (as they say) “filthy” rich. Some are cocky, conceited prima donnas whose wealth has come too soon- young and famous –so they exhibit all symptoms of arrogance. And this is apparent when you watch some of the Olympic athletes too- especially the sprinters. When they win they open their mouths wide, tongue out, yelling and shrieking, thumping their chests ( as if to say I am king and Mr tough guy, all rolled into one)- boxers too. They jump in the air, yell at their fans, gloating and flaunting their victory to everyone. It has become fashionable-winning goals and competitions means thumping chests and sticking tongues out. As though to insist- I am better and don’t you dare come near me.
Zidane...my favourite player of all time!
But now and then you see a different type of athlete. An athlete that does not brag- who looks up to the skies to the Almighty One- or kneels down on the ground, kissing mother earth and acknowledges the power of life, glory and divine soil. Sometimes it is a cultural thing. Among African players you see a lot of choreographed dancing and smiling while Muslim and Arab world athletes tend to raise their hands to Allah. The yelling, sticking the tongue out and jumping in the air attitude is mostly Euro-American habit- whether black or white. A body language that means more than a celebration.
And how does Lionel Andrés Messi do it?
Former legends have all heaped praises on the 24 year old Argentinean striker. Gary Lieneker – BBC football pundit and former English forward who never got a red card in his entire career- called Messi a “genius”; French former legend, Eric Cantona said he is “exceptional player” while last week Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola admitted: “We will never see a player like him again.”
But it is the words of Germany’s former captain and manager, Frank Bakenbauer who also dubbed him a genius “and a gentleman,” that helps us conclude the theme of this column today.
Why would such an exceptional genius be a gentleman? Why doesn’t he run around yelling, taunting and jumping at the opposing teams? Why is he so cool and calm after dribbling past several defenders and scoring a goal?
Because Lionel Messi is humble and dignified. That is how it used to be in the old days. The best players were laid back, gentlemen who never bragged, showed off or displayed acts of arrogance. They let the work do the talking. There is a saying in Swahili which says ugliness shows off while beauty does not need to sell itself.
Sir Stanley Mathews (above) the English soccer genius who kicked the ball professionally up to 50 years- and continued playing regularly until he reached 70- neither drank nor smoked. In his later years Sir Mathews coached and established an all black team in Soweto during the Apartheid era in South Africa. Like Messi he was also a gentleman- who never got a red card. These are individuals worth emulating and praise in our days of inflatable egos and money grabbing arrogance.
Published in Citizen Tanzania- Friday 16th March, 2012-