There was not a happier person in Barcelona last Saturday than an 11-year-old boy from Morocco, called Soufian. He saw his hero Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer player, slapping his thighs after scoring the first goal against the team called Osasuna. Following Messi’s goal, he lifted his hands in a characteristic gesture and immediately started slapping his thighs, a way he had agreed beforehand with Soufian so that he would know that this 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 had played soccer with the Moroccan boy, a fan of his. When he met again the boy last Friday, he promised him that his first goal would be dedicated to him. And he kept his promise. It was a characteristic gesture of generosity by the most uncharacteristic, and talented, of all soccer players.
Soufian had lost both of his 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 in 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 was 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 Barça. And he has also painted in them the number 10, Messi’s shirt number, usually given to the best player.
Since he was 19 Messi had decided to use part of the earnings from soccer to good causes. In 2007, he established the Leo Messi Foundation, a charity aimed at helping vulnerable children to gain access to better health and education opportunities. It was, perhaps, the 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 4 feet 7 inches. His soccer team, called River Plate, could not afford at the time the medical costs for treating his condition.
Barça’s sporting director, Carlos Rexach, aware of the boy’s talent, offered him a contract which included payment for treating his hormone deficiency. Since at the time he had no other paper at hand, Rexach drew the contract in a napkin, probably the only such contract in soccer’s history.
Although Messi now stands at 5-7, he uses his relatively short size to full advantage. He can easily dribble among three or four opponents with unstoppable speed until he can reach the opponents’ goalkeeper whom he usually also dribbles to score a goal. Because he is short, Messi’s nickname is The Flea, as he is widely known.
Messi’s foundation supports sick Argentine children (mostly from his hometown of 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 been able to continue 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.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a New York writer.