How is Messi So Humble?

Leo Messi is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is his remarkable humility. Professional teams of every sport are littered with arrogant jerks. This makes sense–most of these athletes have been sequestered from reality and coddled since the day they begin to show the kind of promise that merited investment. Despite his humble roots, Cristiano Ronaldo signed with Sporting Club Portugal when he was ten years old. By the time he was 17 or 18, he had the hopes of his country on his statuesque shoulders. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to point out that sustained exposure to attention, money, idolatry and all the other perks that come with being a wunderkind can change even the nice kids born in a humble household[1]. When you mature without performing the necessary gritty rites of becoming an adult (going to high school, doing your own laundry, cleaning house, living on a budget, etc.), it is not altogether surprising when you become unable to relate with 99% of the world population and are branded an insufferable douchebag.

Over drinks with friends recently, I was introduced to a tidy theory that explains why rural/conservative communities are so resistant to universal (or government-subsidized) healthcare. In an urban environment, you are constantly presented with the dereliction of society. The homeless abound: you ride the subway with them, you cross the street to avoid them, you occasionally give them charity. Because urbanites (poor, middle, or upper class) are frequently confronted with the depravity of homelessness and joblessness in very graphic form, they are generally more sensitive and accommodating to legislation that will help those in need. Their literal closeness to one other motivates their selflessness in willing to give up their funds in the form of taxes to see to it that those less fortunate are cared for.

On the other hand, rural communities tend to be more insulated from each other. The wealthy especially tend to live out in the countryside, far away from the stresses of city life. The physical distance separating the average person; the fact that most get around using comfort-oriented personal automobiles; the decreased likelihood you’ll ever need to interact with the outcasts of society–this unfamiliarity could breed a greater unwillingness to give up hard-earned money to support someone you’ve never met (or ever will, in most cases). I’m not implying that rural communities tend to possess a higher ratio of douchebags[2]. I’m simply asserting that there is potentially a connection between intimacy with every stratum of society and an ability to relate to others outside of your social class, even those you’d prefer not to relate to. This theory was extended during the conversation to apply to why some European societies (where city life dominates the political scene) have universal healthcare with minimal complaining, and the US does not[3].

Going back to the question at hand, I think it’s easy to see why so many professional athletes are perceived as assholes. The ones that have been heralded as gamechanging athletes their whole careers have been isolated (like someone living in the countryside) from the lives that most sports fans lead for so long that even their casual conversation tends to infuriate. “‘I am the first, second and third,’ [Cristiano Ronaldo] said with a smile after arriving in Brazil for international duty with Portugal,” reads a Daily Mail article from 2008[4]. Think Elway, Marino, Favre, Bonds, Dykstra, Rooney, Cole, Jordan, Kobe, Rasheed Wallace (I could go on). You don’t hear the word “nice guy” ever associated with them.

What about the ones who are “nice guys?” Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Tim Tebow, Tim Hudson, Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Warner, Gianfranco Zola[5]? Undoubtedly, general temperament can sway the douchebag meter a bit, but most of these guys are convivial and relateable because they came from modest circumstances (in terms of sports). Drew Brees and Tim Tebow[6] were consistently reminded how they would never become good NFL QBs; Aaron Rodgers had to sit on the sidelines for three years and then deal with an egomaniac creating a media firestorm and amping up the pressure on him to perform; Zola managed a terrible West Ham team that eventually got regulated[7]. It’s certainly not a hard and fast dictum, but the athletes that have had to overcome significant challenges on their way to becoming world famous tend to be “nicer,” more humble, or whatever you want to call it than those who haven’t. Kurt Warner knows what it’s like to live a life working in a grocery store, because he did do that before he became part of the Greatest Show on Turf. Tom Brady knows what it’s like to be a third-stringer because he was one at the University of Michigan.

That brings me back round to the man of the hour, Mr. Three-time Ballon D’Or Winner himself. By all accounts, Messi should be in with the douchebag crowd. This piece was partially inspired by Luke Moore posting a clip of a ten-year old Messi single-handedly owning an opposing group of ten-year olds. His timeline is remarkably similar to Cristiano Ronaldo’s, minus the whole growth-hormone deficiency thing. Born to a factory worker and a part-time cleaner, signed with Barca at around age 13, the hopes of club and country pinned on him since it became clear he was a game-changer. Despite enough attention to overwhelm an entire town of inferior footballers, Messi has managed to remain remarkably humble, stay out of trouble with the law, and avoid egregiously flaunting displays of his wealth (see: Balotelli, Mario). How? Why? Again, other than his growth-hormone deficiency, which I’m not convinced yielded any kind of psychological damage[8] in same the way most underdog “nice guy” types developed, Messi seems to have lived a charmed life. Does his uniqueness extend into his uncanny ability to be a relateable superstar (one of the few in sporting history)?

This Telegraph article posits one undoubtedly major reason for his groundedness: his family. We here in the States understand that family can be as much of a negative influence in the life of a superstar (whether in sports or entertainment) as a positive one, to the point that it becomes rare to see a selfless and supporting family remain in a protective orbit around the player for very long. I don’t think the diagnoses of Messi’s selflessness and pure passion for the game as anachronistic to our time period necessarily concretely define his character. In any walk of life, you will largely be the sum of the various social, familial, and economic pressures exerted on your life. If his family did not pick up and move to Barcelona along with him, creating a “protective cocoon” (in the words of the Telegraph writer) around him, I doubt he would have managed to sustain his lack of interest in the popular footballer’s lifestyle. I assert that his family’s seemingly virtuosic ability to balance out the excesses of money and fame and keep him “normal” is a major factor in his humbleness.

Yet there’s another consideration. One nugget that distinguishes Barcelona from most of the rest of the world’s major soccer franchises is it’s pointed lack of eccentric behavior. By and large, you don’t hear a peep from most of the superstars on that team. Puyol didn’t drop a trophy under a bus, Xavi hasn’t crashed his Ferrari, Pique hasn’t been embroiled in a national marriage infidelity scandal, Pep Guardiola hasn’t been caught in a brothel, Pedro hasn’t been arraigned on drunk driving charges, Busquets hasn’t been associated with child prostitution. My point is that there seems to be a marked calmness and avowed distaste for the eccentricity of a footballer’s lifestyle among most of Barca’s players. What’s the link that unites all the ones I’ve mentioned and Messi? La Masia. For all the emphasis on football philosophy and style of play, the Barca youth camp’s emphasis on humility is often overlooked. From a Daily Mail article in 2010, “I think the two most important qualities for the boys are comradeship and humility,” says [academy director Carles] Folguera. “These guys might have been chosen to be part of Barca but it is humility that earns you respect. We don’t want them to go around talking about huge amounts of money. You can be humbled if your surrounding are, but it’s tough. But take Iniesta – he is not arrogant, he more or less goes unnoticed.”

Some of La Masia's early graduates, including Pep.

I think the tendency with hero-worship is to forget the subtle impact of external forces upon a hero’s character. We always want to believe that what a hero has become was always inside of him. That those fantastic qualities, be they physical, emotional, intellectual, have been borne out through linear or non-linear means but have always been a part of the biological make-up of the hero. Messi is a remarkable player, and everyone understands that now. But for me, what is more remarkable is the luck with which his life has played out. Yes, the physical ability has always been there. But what if he had been born into a family that wasn’t willing to sacrifice on his behalf, as with so many other footballers? What if some keen childhood emotional trauma had affected his singular passion for the game? What if he had never entered into La Masia, perhaps the only community at the moment that could have produced a star of his unique type? We’ll never know, but who cares? I don’t need to understand the finer details of light refraction to appreciate an aurora borealis.

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[1] CR9 was the offspring of a cook and a gardener.

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[2] I don’t need to reference the whole Southern politness thing.

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[3] While this website posits that 80% of Americans live in urban areas, the number of Americans that live in dwellings of 200K or more is only 58%. When you factor in the very even Republican/Democrat (which we can roughly translate as conservative/liberal and even more roughly translate as rural/urban) split in recent elections, I think my assertion is mostly valid.

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[4] CR9 (CR7 at the time) was asked who was the best player in the world.

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[5] There are far fewer that I can think of.

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[6] I will accept that Tebow received a lot of acclaim in college (a Heisman, a statue, a massive fanbase devoted exclusively to him). Enough acclaim to have inserted him into the category of athletes that include Cristiano Ronaldo. A major reason for his “nice guy” status is most likely is uber-Christian worldview. That said, you can’t discount getting consistently pilloried in the media for how un-NFL tenable you are a QB.

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[7] OK, that one doesn’t really apply.

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[8] At least one of my fellow O87 writers disagrees.

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One Response to How is Messi So Humble?

  1. Pingback: QWK KCKS: It’s A Bit SuperDrafty In Here | KCKRS

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