There was not a happier person in Barcelona last Saturday than an 11-year-old boy from Morocco named Soufian. He saw his hero Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer superstar, slapping his thighs after scoring the first goal against Osasuna.
Following the goal, Messi lifted his hands in a characteristic gesture and immediately started slapping his thighs, a way he had agreed he would beforehand with Soufian so that the boy would know that this goal was dedicated to him.
And Messi 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 with Barcelona.
The Moroccan boy was never disappointed. Nor was the Spanish sportscaster, aware of that promise, disappointed; he kept yelling after that goal, “Messi is huge, Messi is huge!”
Messi, considered the best soccer player in the world, met Soufian last January and for some unforgettable minutes played soccer with the Moroccan boy. When he met the boy again last Friday, Messi promised that his first goal would be dedicated to him.
When the game was finished, Messi’s team, Barcelona, had crushed Osasuna 8–0, with two more goals from the Argentine star, earning him a hat trick.
The Moroccan boy is such a Messi fan that he has his artificial legs painted with the colors of Messi’s team, known as “Barça”. And he has also painted on them the number 10, Messi’s jersey number, usually given to the team’s best player.
Since he was 19, Messi has put part of his earnings from soccer towards 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 a 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 at that time, River Plate in Argentina, could not afford 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 up the contract on a napkin, perhaps the only such contract in modern soccer.
Although Messi now stands at 5-feet-7 inches, he uses his relatively short size to full advantage. He easily dribbles among three or four opponents with unstoppable speed until he reaches the opponents’ goalkeeper whom he usually also dribbles past 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 of Rosario) to allow them to get paid treatment in Spain, covering hospital costs, 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 has brought hope and a brilliant smile to a young Moroccan boy.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a New York writer.