By Dr Cesar Chelala
When almost everybody thought that Lionel Messi’s best times were in the past, the Argentine player became the top scorer both in the Spanish and in the Champions League – an extraordinary achievement – proving again his exceptional qualities. There is, however, another side to Messi that is as remarkable and much less well known: his work as a humanitarian.
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 named Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, where he has been able to continue his work in support of vulnerable children.
In 2011 in Barcelona, Messi characteristically showed the humanitarian side of his personality. During a game between FC Barcelona and CA Osasuna there was not a happier person in Barcelona than an 11-year-old Moroccan boy called Soufian.
Soufian saw his hero Lionel Messi slapping his thighs after scoring the first goal against Osasuna. Following his goal, Messi lifted his hands in a characteristic gesture and immediately started slapping his thighs, in a way that he had agreed beforehand with Soufian would signal that this goal was dedicated to him.
Messi had met Soufian last January, and for a few unforgettable minutes had played football with the Moroccan boy, a fan of his. When he again met the boy recently, 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 football players.
Soufian had lost both of his legs to Laurin-Sandrow syndrome, an extremely rare genetic condition. Set with artificial legs, he never lost his passion for football. And he feverishly followed Messi’s performances in Barcelona’s team.
The Moroccan boy was never disappointed. Neither was the Spanish sportscaster who, aware of that promise, 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.
The Moroccan boy is such a fan of Messi that he has his artificial legs painted in the colours of Messi’s team. He has also painted on them the number 10, Messi’s shirt number, usually given to the best player.
Since he was 19, Messi decided to use part of the earnings from football 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 own 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.”
Throughout his professional career, Messi has proven to be unique. He is unique as a football player and remarkable as a human being. He not only is the most recognisable face of football 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