lu pulga

In the midst of pool sounds, some of which were happy, some of which were fight-y, I sneaked a peek at World Cup action. And in doing so, I unexpectedly had my life-isn’t-about-you, it’s-best-to-work-together, never-quit sails filled as I did.

For a little background, I’m a soccer novice. Soccer was around when I was young, but I don’t remember it much. Football – YES. Tennis, yes. Softball, volleyball, basketball, and swimming – check. But not soccer. At least not in West Texas. So when I met Jon when we were getting our MBAs at Thunderbird, I really had very little soccer knowledge. It’s hard to imagine we made it past that – considering soccer was Jon’s life.

Jon grew up in Bolivia and played the game from the moment he took his first steps. It’s what they did. Kids and adults alike could pick up a game pretty much anytime, anywhere. Jon recounts his fondest memories on dirt fields where he and his friends played for hours, quickly learning to mend their coveted soccer balls from thorn puncture wounds found on the far from well-manicured venues. Color of skin, social standing, academic acumen – none of those things mattered. Ball handling skill ruled the day.

And I’m not sure a home-grown American girl like me can appreciate what soccer means to so many people around the world. But Jon knows. He lived it. He feels it. He looks forward to and vividly remembers every World Cup match. He celebrates the wins and agonizes over the defeats because he knows what both mean for the countries represented.

So as we in the United States can genuinely celebrate a game well played by our guys yesterday, it was really the the Argentina vs Switzerland match that captured my thoughts.  After highlighting for my kids the amazing way their U.S. team never quit, went for every ball, played to the best of their ability in the midst of extreme pressure – I circled back to the game they didn’t watch. The game where much more than a great competition was on the line.

In many of the countries represented at the World Cup, literally all their hopes and dreams rest on these soccer matches. See also: Colombia and the 1994 World Cup. ESPN put together a fascinating 30 on 30 on the subject called The Two Escobars. where

… in 1994, when an athlete named Andres Escobar was murdered for accidentally scoring an own goal that cost the Colombian National Team a chance at winning the World Cup and transforming its negative image on the international stage. Here was a country with a national identity so integrally connected to the success of its soccer team that one mistake on a playing field dashed the pride of an entire nation and cost a man his life.

Thankfully, incidents like Colombia’s violent response to a soccer loss are few, but the story provides insight into the pressure and the expectations surrounding these games for many people. Just last week, the dejected South Korean team was pelted by angry fans with toffees upon their return home after losing.

So when Argentina took the field yesterday, all eyes and hopes and dreams were on a single man – Lionel Messi, one of the game’s all-time greatest players. Even I know he’s amazing. His ball handling skill is hard to match. But it is his demeanor that I love the most. He’s nickname is La Pulga – “the flea” – not quite the powerhouse identity we would expect from world-class athletes – especially considering the impact he has on every game he plays. But he is a powerhouse. He does it quietly. Without fanfare. Consistently. And he’s a team player.

As I watched the game that agonizingly went into overtime and threatened a penalty-kick ending, I listened to the announcers start to give into lament. They prepared everyone for what it would mean for Argentina and the failing national hero. My heart ached. But, with only minutes to go, “MESSI has the ball” started to fill the air. And there he went, the way he does, never quitting, fighting to the end, carrying with him a literal sea of defenders who want anyone but him to handle the ball. With pinpoint accuracy he moved the ball up field, then with the crowd going wild, shot on goal!!!

No – he didn’t do that. He passed the ball.

While it was not Messi who this time scored the late, late goal, it was his drive, skill and refusal to give up that dragged his team into the quarter-finals with three minutes of extra-time to go.

Slipping the ball to Angel di María, the Real Madrid forward struck the ball into the far corner to finally pierce Switzerland’s defence…”

There’s the lesson. It plays even in my back yard. Maybe especially in my back yard, and in my living room, and in our car…. “Don’t give up.” “Play your best until the end.” “Work together; not against.” “It’s not about you.” Because if they can do that with their siblings, in their own home … they can do it ANYWHERE.

Messi could have attempted the goal himself. Honestly, he might have made it if he had. And I don’t know what flies through his head – or if he intentionally focuses on the team rather than himself. But it sure makes for a great story with my kids… and with me. In today’s environment, where self-promotion is king, how nice to have a real-life example – on arguably the most intense stage in the world – of keeping your eyes focused on others rather than yourself and doing your best to the very end. The result was beautiful.

Thanks for walking the road with me.


two are better than one

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