The 2013-14 campaign for Lionel Messi was a disappointment for a player of his stature. He didn't win the World Cup, the Ballon d'Or, or the Champion's League - and even winning the Golden Ball as the best player of the World Cup left many Messi fans wanting for more. These, however, are the standards that Messi's past successes have set. As he attempts to return to the pinnacle of individual and team success, we think it worthwhile to examine how, exactly, Messi became the 5-time Ballon d'Or winner he is today.
Was it just his incredible talent? Was it his love of the game? Well, thanks to advanced research techniques, we have uncovered childhood footage of the Barcelona talisman. Yes, at some point in his life, Messi was a child just like you and me. Of course, he might have been a time-traveling child sent to this era by an advanced, soccer-playing race of homo sapiens, but a child he was, nevertheless. We have proof:
Now that we have you all dewey-eyed, let’s appreciate what we just witnessed. We understand if you were skeptical about whether or not this was him. But for anyone who has watched Messi for an extended period of time, that veil of mistrust was lifted as soon as he started to dribble the ball.
The similarities between 9-year-old Messi and adult Messi are uncanny: the quick movement, the wrong-footing of other players for fun, the dribbling mainly with his immaculate left foot. And, of course, the goal-scoring. All. Of. The goals. Furthermore, he was the smallest player on the pitch. It is uncertain whether or not this is because he was playing with an older age group, but it is clear that from a very young age Messi had to learn how to deal with his size, or lack thereof.
He might not quite have had a Napolean complex, but the beginnings of his footballing personality are there. How he relentlessly tries to get onto the ball, his refusal to be knocked off it. Even at 9 years old, defenders were hacking at him like frustrated…well, children. But like some crack combination of a bowling ball and those damned toys that never fall over, he just bounces between them like a buoy with a ball tied to it.
From this video, we can clearly see that Messi, the teammate, and Messi, the competitor, are two parts of his personality that he grew up with - not something that he learned as an adolescent or young adult. This is unsurprising considering he is a professional athlete in a team sport, but that doesn't make it any less important. Watch the goal at 2:08 again, and then watch him score against Brazil as an adult:
He is the exact same. He runs - arms raised in triumph - to his teammates, who embrace him like brothers. You cannot fake a celebration like that. It is the mark of a great teammate, and you can’t help but feel good for him. Genuine, that is the best word to describe it. He wanted to score for his team, and is so darned excited that he did, that he can't help but run right to those same teammates.
It is easy for a child to be genuine. They don't know any better most of the time. It is growing up that leads to corruption, like the real world is an acid bath that slowly eats away at the glass bubble of childhood. As we grow, uncompromising realities creep through the glossy finish. Unchecked, the bubble is lost forever. We no longer have the pleasure of catching our reflection in the world around us.
It takes wisdom and character to keep from losing yourself. And when people are as talented as Messi, the talons of those who would abuse them are always that much closer to taking hold. To be a child is to be vulnerable, and too often the lives of youth are dictated by who they interact with among the old.
This next video is an interview with Messi's first coach, Salvador Aparicio. We know little about him, except from what we can garner from this interview, but it is hard to watch Salvador and not judge the content of his character.
Salvador is the man that any parent would want coaching his or her son. He is compassionate, and he truely cares about his players. This was the beginning of Messi's soccer career, and he couldn't have been in better hands.
This would just be a long tradition in Messi's career of being in a great environment. Barcelona's La Masia Acadamy, where Messi trained starting at 12, is known for focusing on the player's personality, growing traits that cater to the team-first, share-the-ball, tiki-taka style that Barcelona would make famous. Not to say that Messi went through life without being tarnished by it, but he was usually in a good place, surrounded by the right people.
Just listening to Salvador talk about him also clarifies what a talent Messi was as a child. The anecdote of Messi’s first-ever touches on a soccer ball smacks of a savant discovering his own talent. It’s like he was chosen. He didn’t ever have to learn how to play. He just did it.
This all seems like the way it should be. The greatest player of our generation, who has statistically been shown to be impossibly good, should have been scoring six or seven goals a game as a child. His youth coach should be reduced to tears - like the proudest of fathers - when he realizes his humble pupil has become the greatest player in the world. It's a modern day romance.
The amazing thing about Messi is that he is still that child running around on the pitch. That ideal of playing every game like it is the love of your life? Messi lives that. And, here at The 18, it restores some of our faith in humanity that it has allowed him to rise to the top of the soccer world. He might even be the greatest of all time by the end of his career. In all of this grandeur, his beginnings should not be taken for granted
Messi is one of those rare people who wed his life’s passion and innate talent at a very young age. The success that follows that marriage has a habit of changing the person it inhabits. Yet, Messi seems not to have changed in the slightest. No, we don't know if playing for Salvador Aparicio or spending his adolescent years in La Masia are the ony reasons why Messi achieved what he has. We can never know that. We can just know that they helped.
Our society is becoming saturated with influence. For better and for worse, we are a smartphone away from discovering something new. So let's take a note from the life of Messi, and curate our influences wisely.