Why Messi finishes first on and off the pitch

by Cesar Chelala

There was no one happier in Barcelona on Saturday, Sept. 19, than 11-year-old Soufian of Morocco. He had seen his hero Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer player, lift his hands and slap his thighs after scoring the first goal against team Osasuna — gestures that Soufian knew indicated that the goal was dedicated to him.

Lionel Messi, considered the best soccer player in the world, had met Soufian last January and, for some unforgettable minutes, played soccer with him. When he again met the boy last Friday, he promised that his first goal would be dedicated to him. He kept his promise. It was a characteristic gesture of generosity.

Soufian had lost both legs to Laurin-Sandrow disease, an extremely rare genetic condition. Set with artificial legs, he hadn’t lost his passion for soccer. And he feverishly followed Messi’s performances on Barcelona’s team. The Moroccan boy was never disappointed. Nor was the Spanish sportscaster disappointed either, aware of that promise, who kept yelling after that goal, “Messi is huge, Messi is huge!” When the game finished, Messi’s team had defeated Osasuna 8-0, with two more goals from Messi, one of them a hat trick.

The Moroccan boy is such a fan of Messi that he has his artificial legs painted with the colors of Messi’s team, called Barca. And he has painted “10″ on them, Messi’s shirt number, which is usually given to the best player.

Since he was 19. Messi has used part of his earnings from soccer for good causes. In 2007, he established the Leo Messi Foundation, a charity aimed at helping vulnerable children gain access to better health and education opportunities. It was, perhaps, his way of expressing gratitude for overcoming his childhood health problems.

In a fan-site interview Messi stated, “Being a bit famous now gives me the opportunity to help people who really need it, particularly children.”

Messi came to Barcelona when he was 13 years old, after being diagnosed with growth-hormone deficiency, which made him unable to grow at the same pace as children his age. He was then only 140 cm tall. His soccer team, called River Plate, could not at that time afford the medical costs for treating his condition.

Barca’s sporting director, Carlos Rexach, aware of the boy’s talent, offered him a contract that included payment for treating his hormone deficiency. With no other paper on hand, Rexall drew up the contract on a napkin, probably the only such contract in soccer’s history.

Although Messi now stands at 168 cm, he uses his relatively short size to full advantage. He can easily dribble among three or four opponents with unstoppable speed until he reaches the opponents’ goalkeeper whom he also dribbles to score a goal. Because he is short, Messi’s nickname is “The Flea.”

Messi’s foundation supports sick Argentine children (mostly from his hometown Rosario) to allow them to get paid treatment in Spain, covering hospital, round-trip transportation from Argentina and recovery costs.

In March 2010, Messi was also named Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, where he has continued his work in support of vulnerable children.

Throughout his 24 years Messi has proven to be unique. He is unique as a soccer player and remarkable as a human being. He not only is the most recognizable face of soccer worldwide, he is a kind young man who brought hope and a brilliant smile to a young Moroccan boy.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a writer who lives in New York.