The World Cheers for an Overdog
Lionel Messi is the rarest figure in sports: A prodigy who met the world's expectations
Lionel Messi likely has never set foot on a soccer pitch on which he wasn’t the best player.
This may sound like hyperbole, but it is almost certainly true. From his days of playing soccer as a child, it was clear he was a magician with the ball, capable of making it disappear from his foot and reappear in the back of the goal.
“He’s different to the rest,” remarked one admirer in 2006, when Messi was merely 18 years old. “The ace to our aces…Messi seems to have an extra gear, a sixth speed. He feels the ball. That’s what makes him different.”
The admirer, who spoke those words in the run-up to Messi’s first World Cup appearance for his native Argentina, was none other than Diego Maradona, the Argentinian soccer legend who led the nation to a World Cup title in 1986.
That same achievement had eluded the now-35-year-old Messi until 2022, when Argentina beat France on penalty kicks to bring home the world’s most coveted sports trophy. During the game Messi outdueled 23-year-old superstar Kylian Mbappé, a defending champion who, aided by two penalty kicks, posted a hat trick of his own.
Messi, who is now ancient in soccer terms, nonetheless won the tournament’s Golden Ball award, given to the World Cup’s top overall performer. Even with slightly diminished athletic ability, Messi outperformed the world’s best players, some of whom were nearly half his age.
It almost seemed un-American to root for an overdog like Messi - here is a player whose feet were touched by God at an early age and went on to have one of the most blessed careers in soccer history. Messi has won seven Ballon d'Or awards, a record six European Golden Shoes awards, and 35 trophies with his Spanish club, Barcelona.
In America, we like underdog stories - the athlete who works his or her way up from obscurity, who achieves glory through grit and determination. We want our athletes to be relatable - as if we, ourselves, could gain the skill to be an elite athlete if we only worked hard enough.
Take someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was drafted into the NBA as a skinny 18-year-old nobody, and who has turned himself into arguably the best player in professional basketball. Or Nikola Jokic, a chubby second-round pick who has now won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards. Or any number of American athletes who have emerged from poverty and/or challenging family situations to reach the pinnacle of the NFL or Major League baseball.
Even the greatest athletes of all time come ready with rags-to-riches stories. Michael Jordan often tells of how he was cut from his high school basketball team, which pushed him to become a better player. Famously, Tom Brady was a sixth-round NFL draft pick before he went on to appear in ten Super Bowls.
(One exception to this rule is Wayne Gretzky, who was a child prodigy in Canadian youth hockey. Like Messi, some old clippings exist in which newspapers tout Gretzky as a future star when he was only 10 years old.)
Never mind that many of the athletes we identify with have incredible physical abilities that normal people can never replicate. For all the talk of Larry Bird’s smarts and toughness, remember that he was also six-foot-nine, making him a physical outlier in every sense.
Nevertheless, we typically gravitate to the sports figures who we think are more relatable - the more it seems they worked their way to the top, the more credit we give them. We often downgrade athletes to whom it seems everything was given.
But success stories like Messi’s are far rarer than stories like, say, Larry Bird’s.
Imagine being a teenager and having the fortunes of a 45 million-person nation on your shoulders. A proud country that expects continued greatness in your sport and relentlessly compares you to its greatest-ever athlete in Maradona.
We have seen athletes with superior skill consistently flame out for myriad reasons, from injury, to complacency, to drug and alcohol abuse, to mental problems stemming from having to deal with the pressure to perform. Does anyone believe they would grow up a normal, well-adjusted human if they were anointed the savior of their sport as a teenager? (Cough…Tiger Woods…cough.)
And yet Messi - with all the pitfalls and temptations that lay ahead of him - fully realized his potential, blessing us with his greatness for a decade and a half. To the world, he is what LeBron James is in America - a child to whom all the physical skills were given, who nonetheless continued to work, who kept his head about him, and who matched society’s high expectations.
Everyone loves an overachiever. But we should rightfully praise the proper-achievers when their pre-ordained skill takes them to heights few have ever seen.
Since my last newsletter, I have become a weekly columnist at National Review Online. (This partially explains why it’s been so long since my last newsletter.)
Last week, I wrote about what will happen if Donald Trump refuses to concede should he lose the 2024 presidential election. (SPOILER: It won’t be good, and not even Ron DeSantis will be able to save the party from the carnage it will cause.)
And given Donald Trump’s history, he will not go down willingly. If someone like DeSantis (or “Ron Desanctimonious,” as Trump has labeled him) were to mount a real challenge, there is ample evidence to suggest Trump will come at him with the fire of a thousand suns.
And if another candidate were to actually win the primary, the GOP would no doubt once again be cast into a morass of accusations of “fraud” and “stolen elections.” We now know that Donald Trump does not concede — even if the Republican primary has a clear winner who is not Trump, that candidate will have to wrestle with the former president all the way up to Election Day, rather than focusing on whoever ends up being the Democratic candidate.
And, of course, Trump always has the nuclear option, which would be to run as an independent. If we know one thing about Trump, it is that he will always put his own needs ahead of those of the party, so he wouldn’t hesitate to burn the 2024 election to the ground to get his way. (Given what we saw on January 6, 2021, one shudders to think of what could happen in any number of state-capitol buildings after a caucus or primary election.)
Many of Ron DeSantis’s fans see him as the acid bath the party needs to finally rid itself of the Trump stench. But when Republicans nominated a game-show host in 2016, they signed up for a lifetime of histrionics. The GOP may look far and wide for a new leader, but the former president is not going away. DeSantis may win the primary, but if the former guy is still around, he will preside over the burning rubble of a political party.
Read the whole thing here.
In previous weeks, I opined about how nobody seems to know how the First Amendment actually works, how colleges have turned to forced segregation to improve the racial culture on campus, and how soccer is the most unjust game.
After reading a couple of these pieces, you probably need to sign up for a subscription. The paywall cometh for thee.
I was just in New York City for a few days. When I told my neighbor, who used to live there, that I was staying in Soho, she told me I should walk around for a half hour and guaranteed I would see a celebrity.
Lo an behold, near the end of my walk, I walked right by Peter Dinklage, best known for his role as Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” (Although he’s great in pretty much everything.)
Ironically, he’s very hard to miss.
My friends from back home asked me if I stopped him to have a chat. I did not, because I am a grown-ass adult.
It’s the end of the year, when I put together my favorite albums of the year list. You can listen to me talk about it on the Will’s Band of the Week podcast here.
My favorite album of the year is from British band Wet Leg, which took the indie music world by storm this year. Their songs are catchy, humorous and profane. And there isn’t a weak one on the album.
Here’s the album’s closer, “Too Late Now:”
With Twitter coming apart at the seams, I have been migrating to other social media platforms. You can find me at Post here.
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