My family witnessed the nerve-wracking World Cup 2022 finals between France and Argentina from 11 p.m. to way past 2 a.m. here in the Philippines. We were a handful of the estimated 1.5 billion viewers who remained glued to their screens, whether through cable or live streaming.
Team Argentina, led by Lionel “Leo” Messi, controlled the ball most of the time and led by two goals until the other world football sensation from France, Kylian Mbappé, scored two consecutive goals not even two minutes apart in the 80th minute. Every minute was nail-biting as both Messi and Mbappé, teammates in Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), scored a goal each to tie the game at 3-3 on overtime.
Argentina aced all their first four penalty kicks against only two by France to finally seal their victory. The last time they were hailed as world champion was in 1986, led by the great Diego Maradona, who is considered a god in his country. I heard a commentator say that Messi is considered a messiah, but surely he is now elevated to the same reverence for Maradona after this historic win.
With a following of 406 million on Instagram, it is not a wonder that many of his posts have multi-million likes. However, his post of a series of victory shots right after the championship game in Lusail Stadium in Qatar has now reached the status of most-liked post in the world with almost 71 million likes and two million comments.
Many admire and recognize him for his athletic skills, his game IQ, his calm and controlled executions. And while there will always be debates on who is the greatest footballer in history, no one can contest the fact that Messi is the highest-paid athlete of 2022, as per the Forbes annual list. He was on the top list in 2019 and was No. 2 in 2021, after MMA superstar Conor McGregor. His 2022 earnings are reported to be $130 million.
Born in 1987 in Rosario, Argentina, Messi rose from childhood medical challenges to achieve a world record of seven Ballon d‘Or awards given to the world’s top male football athlete. He was honored with the award in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2019 and 2021. He won his first Ballon d‘Or at 22.
He joined the Newell’s Old Boys club in Rosario when he was only six years old. He scored nearly 500 goals as a young member. The excitement got dampened when he was 10, as he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency.
In 1997, growth hormone treatment was a costly $1,000 per month, which his father’s health insurance only covered for two years. He migrated to Spain at the age of 13 since the Barcelona team agreed to sponsor his medical requirements. It is reported that he was 4’2” from the start of treatment and finished said treatment at 5’7”.
What makes him more endearing to his fans is not just his great football skills, but also his big heart for charity. He grew up quietly braving difficulties with his family. He excelled despite them. A benefactor himself of the charitable acts of others, he never fails to assist when he can, especially through his Leo Messi Foundation.
During the pandemic, Messi donated one million euros to Barcelona’s hospitals to fight the coronavirus. He actively campaigned on the importance of staying home and washing hands to avoid the spread of the virus. In Rosario, he donated 50 respirators in 2020, when he found out that the hospital there was running out of the machines. Before the pandemic, he donated 650,000 euros to refurbish a Rosario hospital.
When he got married to childhood sweetheart Antonella Roccuzzo, another Rosario native he had known since he was five years old, they refused any gifts from guests and requested them instead to donate funds to the Leo Messi Foundation instead so that more lives could be improved.
Since the universe helped him conquer a childhood disease and therefore realize his dreams, most of Messi’s charitable work involves children. He helped the fund drive for the Sant Joan de Deu Hospital in Barcelona, when they aimed to open a new department for the specialized treatment of children with cancer. A total of 27 million euros was raised and he personally added three million of his own money to raise the required funds.
He attended the ceremony to launch the construction of the new SJD Pediatric Cancer Center and met some of the young beneficiaries. He said in his speech that he was very happy to be a part of the project that would help kids fight the cruel cancer that disrupts their childhood.
Since 2004, Messi has contributed both his time and finances to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), where he has served as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2010.
He found time then to personally visit earthquake-torn Haiti in 2010 and spent time with 50,000 homeless Haitians due to their earthquake-destroyed homes in a temporary housing camp.
In 2012, he found a boy struggling with growth hormone deficiency just like he did before. The boy also had great dreams to be a professional footballer. Messi immediately committed to sponsor the boy’s medical treatments until he reaches 18 years old. He also sent a photo of himself to the boy with a message of love and inspiration to be strong.
In 2017, he made a huge donation to UNICEF for the installation of 20 new classrooms in Tartus and Damascus in Syria to allow 1,600 Syrian children affected by war to return to school. UNICEF publicly thanked Messi for his generous support.
Critics might say that it is easy to give from your abundance, but Messi understands that more than money, his presence and active involvement mean more. Now that these acts of kindness are being made public, fans say that he is not only one of the greatest footballers of all time but a super human being as well.