There is another side to Lionel Messi, one that hides behind the goals, the striking performances on the pitch and his trademark shyness.
Few get to see that other side, but it is there, and perhaps no one knows it better than Soufian Bouyinza, the boy with no legs who has heard the Argentine striker say he admires him.
“I admire you a lot because you are fighting everyday for your goals,” Messi told Soufian in a documentary that Catalan TV channel TV3 made recently.
The comment is laconic, just like Messi.
It gives little away about a man who is arguably the world’s best footballer.
“I have a special connection with him,” Messi says of Soufian.
The boy, a Spaniard of Moroccan parents, has suffered from Laurin-Sandrow syndrome since he was born in Barcelona 11 years ago.
Laurin-Sandrow is an extremely rare genetic disorder that can join all fingers in one hand in just one nail, lead to leg malformations and even to the amputation of both legs, which was the case for Soufian.
“It was him, at age 8, who asked his mother to have his legs cut off,” documentary film-maker Xavi Torres said.
Torres has made the documentary “Soufian, the Boy Who Wanted to Fly.”
Messi’s first meeting with the boy happened earlier in 2011. Together, they did something virtually unthinkable: passing each other a ball, which went backward and forward between the world’s most admired left foot and the youngster’s prosthetic limbs.
But that meeting was followed by others, including one, on May 15, when Barcelona got the La Liga trophy after a goal-less draw with Deportivo La Coruna.
“We got them together in the changing-room area, and there is an incredible hug between them which gives you goosebumps,” Torres says.
He notes that Messi is shaken to the core by Soufian’s story.
“When he saw a little bit of the documentary his eyes were watery, he was swallowing hard,” Torres says.
The footballer and his family saw the film before it premiered.
Over all those meetings, the Barca striker promised to dedicate a goal to the boy. Soufian loved the idea, but the two of them had trouble finding a gesture that made it clear it was his goal.
Just lifting one’s arms to the sky, as Messi usually does, would not do.
And then Soufian had an idea.
“When you score, touch your legs,” the boy said.
It was a done deal. The gesture came on Sept. 17, after Messi’s first goal in Barcelona’s 8-0 win over Osasuna.
Usually silent, not very eloquent when he has no choice but to speak, Messi was in shivers when Diego Maradona made him Argentina captain ahead of a match against Greece in the 2010 World Cup.
Thinking that he had to encourage his team-mates in the changing-room, before going out to play, just seemed like too much.
That may be why Messi feels so comfortable among children. With them, contact sometimes does not even require talking, and at worst it certainly does not take sophisticated discourse.
Between Messi and children everything is simple and complex at once.
Just like the question that Soufian asks his mother Ouafae at one point during the documentary.
“Messi says he admires me. But how can that be, when it is I who admire Messi?”