Lionel Messi is only 23 and about to explode on to the world stage as one of the best soccer players ever to play the game. Here is how the New York Times sees it.
He is 23, with a grown-upâ€™s income reported to exceed $43 million this year. Yet Messi still has a boyâ€™s floppy bangs, a boyâ€™s slight build and a boyâ€™s nickname, the Flea. Even the ball stays on his feet like a shy child clinging to his fatherâ€™s legs.
It is a boyâ€™s fearlessness, enthusiasm, calm and humility, too, that help explain why Messi is already considered one of the greatest ever to play the worldâ€™s game. In the space of 18 tense days from April to early May, Barcelona played four ClÃ¡sicos against its archrival, Real Madrid. The Madrid strategy was to strangle beauty out of the matches, to use nasty muscle against Messi, to shoulder him down or shiver him with a forearm or take his legs in scything tackles. Once, he was sent rolling as if he had caught fire.
Messi made small appeals for fairness with his eyes and hands, but he remained unflappable and without complaint. He did not yell at the referee or clamp a threatening hand around an opponentâ€™s neck or fake a foul and dive to the ground. He remained apart from ugly words and scuffles and expulsions that marred the matches. Instead, he trumped cynicism with genius.
The description of his play reminds me a lot of how Wayne Gretzky was described early in his career. Too small for the rough stuff but impossible to contain and yes he brought genius to the ice.
An interesting article from ESPN on how it isnâ€™t a lack of athletic ability that holds America back at the World Cup
To believe the best-athlete myth is to fundamentally misunderstand American soccer’s plight. Athletic ability is not the problem. In fact, it’s generally considered a Team USA strength, along with competitive spirit. We can run and jump with the world’s best. Compared to their superstar Argentine and Spanish peers, however, our best players lack vision, creativity and technical skill. On-ball magic. Soccer-specific attributes that don’t transfer from one sport to the next, that can’t be measured with the stopwatches and shuttle cones of a scouting combine. Does being able to hit a major league curveball automatically make you a PGA Tour prospect? The things American soccer needs to improve on come from immersion and exposure, from how you grow up in the sport.
And in that regard, our best isn’t good enough. Not even close.
As a teenager, Messi attended the training academy of top professional club Barcelona, living and breathing the game’s highest level; by age 19, he was playing in his first World Cup. In the world of international soccer, his story is the norm. It’s also the norm in the United States — provided you play football, basketball or baseball, where the minors and/or de facto minor league college sports prepare you to be a pro in sink-or-swim, survival-of-the-fittest fashion.
Play soccer, by contrast, and you’ll likely spend your formative years in college — well below MLS, a Marianas Trench removed from the big-money, high-pressure hothouse of European club competition. By the time America’s top talents reach the international level, they’re stuck playing catch-up. Though a shift to continental-style player development is taking place — witness U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who trained at the IMG soccer academy in Florida, went to MLS at age 17 and is now playing in Germany — overnight dividends aren’t a sure thing. How else to explain Freddy Adu?
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