Football pundits seem to have run out of superlatives to describe Lionel Messi’s mesmerising and sublime skills, while the Argentine’s rise to the peak of world football poses many questions about Nigeria’s youth football development programme
For the scandalous lack of superlatives, Stanley Okoro, a member of the silver winning Golden Eaglet team of 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup hosted in Nigeria, was erroneously labelled Nigeria’s own ‘little Messi’ by a section of the country’s sports circle during the tournament.
Fast forward three years later. While the real version has gone on to win two UEFA Champions League trophies with Barcelona, and was also named FIFA World’s Best Player three times consecutively, Okoro, who once played for Heartland FC of Owerri in the Nigerian Premier League, is still trying to find his feet playing for KS Skenderbeu Korce in the little-known Albanian league. Unarguably, the gulf of difference between the real Messi and the ‘little Messi’ is many miles apart.
Maybe some would say that the 19-year-old Nigerian midfielder was a desperate poor man’s version of the real Lionel Messi, the record-breaking diamond feet 24-year-old genius from Rosario, Santa Fe in Argentina, the superstar who is rightly worthy of every superlative he has been described with by football pundits worldwide, simply because his football is almost extra-human, an extraordinary combination of timing, clever anticipation, acceleration, power, balance, agility, vision and disarming intelligence. These rare skills have left many defenders and goalkeepers playing in the world’s best teams panting for breath while the football world watches in awe and excited disbelief.
“His left foot should be in a museum,” exclaimed Barnaby Chesterman, AFP football correspondent in Italy, who added “but his right foot is also excellent and he scored a header in the 2009 Champions League final. This guy can do everything. He has excellent acceleration, brilliant close control, a perfect first touch, he can shoot from anywhere, and he can pass. He has great vision, great understanding of the game, knows where to run and how to time his runs. He can do it all.” Also, when Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager, described Messi as a ‘Play Station footballer’, he was not joking either.
And recently, Messi stretched the world’s awe further and eternally engraved his name in Barcelona’s history books when he scored his 232nd, 233rd and 234th goals for the club in the 5-3 win over Granada in the Spanish La Liga to ensure that he became the club’s all-time top scorer, beating the 232 goals of Spaniard Cesar Rodriguez which had stood for over half a century. Besides, it took Rodriguez a 13-year period, from 1942-1955, to set the longstanding record, while Messi needed just over seven years to surpass it. With his current form, his new record may never be beaten. After all, he is only 24 and has already won five Spanish La Liga titles, three Champions League titles, scoring in two of those finals against Manchester United in 2009 and 2011. This excludes his numerous individual awards. Only the FIFA World Cup is missing from his burgeoning trophy cabinet and this has been the reason some critics feel that the little football wizard could only perform in the outstanding Barcelona system, but not with his native Argentina, where he has only managed 22 goals from 67 appearances.
However, that does not seem to worry Pep Guardiola, his coach at Barcelona. “He’s the best (ever), there is no other like him. The numbers speak for themselves. One day he’ll score six. We’ll never see a player like him again. The only credit I can take is that I always put him in the team and we just try to make sure he gets the ball. After that our task is done. The throne belongs to him and only he will decide when he wants to relinquish it,” Guardiola had said after Messi made Champions League history with a vintage performance for the ages by becoming the first player to score five goals in one match, in a 7-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen earlier in March. Not only that, he now has 49 Champions League goals from 64 appearances, hotly following on the heels of Thierry Henry (51), Ruud van Nistelrooy (54) and Raul (71). Notably, Raul set the all-time record in 144 games. With age and form on his side, Messi seems well poised to break the all-time Champions League goal scorers’ chart.
His heavenly talent aside, Messi is arguably one of the world’s most down-to-earth football stars, with his exemplary character on and off the pitch. “Humility stands him out among the rest, especially among equally gifted players. It is rather interesting that despite his ever-rising profile, he’s not (trod) the controversial lane. It’s rare to hear him talk ill of other players or teams; all he does is just play football. Interestingly, the passion with which he plays the ball suggests a player still struggling to make ends meet! Yet, he is the richest player in the world,” noted Afolabi Gambari, a football analyst.
This may also tell a lot about La Masia, Barcelona’s famous football academy, which has become renowned for mining young prodigious talents like Messi. The academy has over 200 youth players, from ages seven to 18, in 13 different age-group teams within the club, where they all practise the same system of possession play and quick touch passing that was developed over 30 years ago, but refined by former player Johan Cruyff during his coaching spell from 1988 to 1996. More than 500 players have come out of La Masia since 1979, including Guardiola.
Although he started playing football at a young age, Messi’s incredible potential was discovered by Barcelona, which prized him away from Rosario-based Newell’s Old Boys youth team in 2000. The club also offered treatment for his growth hormone deficiency. Since then, Messi has continued to reward their faith in his talent with towering heights of personal and collective achievements. Notably, seven of the 11 Barcelona players who started 2009’s Champions League final win over Manchester United came from La Masia. While the bulk of Spain’s 2010 FIFA World Cup winning team came up the club’s ranks, it goes to say that behind every Messi, Iniesta or Xavi is the work of dozens of talent developers – from coaches to scouts to teachers – who play pivotal roles in the structure of an institution celebrated as “More than a club,” where they imbibe the famous ‘Barca DNA’. “Youngsters need opportunities – everyone needs time. With all conditions being equal, a home-grown player has a better chance than one who comes in from abroad. The Xavis and Iniestas took 10 years to get to where they are,” former Barcelona player Guillermo Amor had told the Associated Press.
Coming back home, while Nigeria has many football academies, it is hard to pick any which could be said to be living to the ideals of a true football academy, spotting and grooming young talents, like La Masia. Most of them also lack proper facilities and equipment to ensure that young players get properly trained to world-class levels. For many of the young players in these academies, the chance of breaking into global significance, like Messi, is almost non-existent. Also, despite the abundance of young talents across the country, the lack of a proper and well-structured youth development programme at the grassroots, poor administration and football structures, and blatant age cheating has short-changed the country over the last few decades. This is despite its winning three FIFA Under-17 World Cups, reaching two finals of the Under-20 tournament, as well as winning gold and silver at the Atlanta 1996 and Beijing 2008 Olympics football respectively. These factors have ensured that it may be difficult to produce Nigeria’s own Messi or someone at least 400 metres close to comparison. “Age cheating has set the decline into our sports and is a huge disservice to our nation because there’s always Karma – what you do today has repercussions for the future. It’s why our top youth players always fade out after a tournament but you find the original European (and South American) players continue playing for many more years on the biggest stage of all,” noted Lolade Adewuyi, chief editor, Goal.com Nigeria.
He is right. While Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano and Messi, Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero are some of the star names that played against Nigeria’s Under 23 Dream Team at the final of the Beijing 2008 Olympics football, John Mikel Obi, Chinedu Ogbuke and Taiye Taiwo have struggled to live up to high expectations. It is the same story of dashed expectations for many of the country’s talents through the youth football system.
Also, despite being awash with football talents like Nigeria, the African continent has only been able to produce a few world-class players in the last few decades. Liberia’s George Weah, the only African to have ever won the FIFA and European Player of the Year Award; Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba; Cameroun’s Samuel Eto’o Fils; and Nigeria’s Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanueasily spring to mind. Could any of them be compared to Messi? “No player can be compared with Messi. He is simply in a class of his own,” Adewuyi responded and added that this was a result of his early influences and upbringing. “The question should be: can we groom a player to attain the greatness of Messi in this country?” he questioned. Only time, proper planning, the right football structures and administration may make that remotely possible as Messi keeps stunning the world with his sublime skills and rewriting the record books.
All the same, the debate still rages on whether the Argentine is simply the greatest of his generation or the greatest of all time. Deservedly, he has been mentioned in the same breath as Brazil’s Pelé and his fellow Argentine Diego Maradona, arguably the two best players of all time, well until Messi came into the picture. “When Messi scored 1,283 goals like me, when he’s won three World Cups, we’ll talk about it,” Pelé once told French newspaper Le Monde. However, Maradona was more generous, albeit cheeky, with his quote. “Messi is my Maradona,” he had said when he was head coach of the Argentine national team. For Chesterman, comparing Messi to the great Pelé or Maradona is a double-edged sword because he (Messi) has the advantage of playing alongside also gifted players like Xavi, Iniesta and David Villa in an outstanding team. “Maradona won the World Cup almost single-handedly; Messi hasn’t managed that (yet). Pelé set so many records and won everything. But then Messi manages to be the outstanding player in the world even when there is (Cristiano) Ronaldo who, without Messi, would be considered someone truly special. I used to think the best of all time was Maradona because he was by far the best I’d seen. Is Messi better? I’d say probably yes. But we’ll have to wait a bit longer to be sure because he might be around for another eight to 10 years yet,” Chesterman explained. Barring injury or an unbelievable loss of form, Messi, the diamond-feet Barcelona and Argentine star, may yet continue stretching his claim to that tag with his constant display of excellence on the football field. “Whatever happens, let’s just be glad we have the chance to watch a little genius at work,” Chesterman concluded.
In 2011, Okoro had implied that he would give anything to play with the real Messi. Probably using a Play Station Messi may be his best chance for the moment. Enough said.