When almost everybody thought that 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. There is, however, another side of 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 the Barcelona and the Osasuna teams there was not a happier person in Barcelona than an 11-year-old boy from Morocco, called Soufian.
Soufian saw his hero Lionel Messi slapping his thighs after scoring the first goal against the team called Osasuna. Following his goal, Messi 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 had met Soufian last January and for some unforgettable minutes had played soccer 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 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.
The Moroccan boy is such a fan of Messi that he has his artificial legs painted with the colors of Messi’s team. And he has also painted on 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, 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.”
Throughout his professional career 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 an international public health consultant and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.