Sports

FIU soccer coach Kenny Arena raves about Argentine star Lionel Messi

Fred Perez, a Barry University goalie and an FC Barcelona fan, said he knows exactly what he would do if soccer superstar Lionel Messi came charging at him, hunting a goal.

“I’d pray,” Perez said. “I’d try my hardest, but he’s unstoppable.”

There are likely many professional goalies who share Perez’s viewpoint, especially after Messi scored a world-record 73 goals in 60 league games for Barcelona this past season.

Messi’s astounding total does not even count the three goals he has scored this year for his native Argentina in five World Cup qualifying matches.

Nor does it consider the goals Messi has posted in exhibitions, such as the three he scored on powerful Brazil in a 4-3 Argentina win two weeks ago in East Rutherford, N.J.

Now it’s South Florida’s turn.

Messi is set to make his first local appearance at 7 p.m. Saturday, competing in a charity all-star match at Sun Life Stadium.

Kenny Arena, the new FIU men’s soccer coach and the son of former U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, said the best thing about Messi is his selfless attitude.

“There’s nothing he can’t do, and there’s nothing he’s not willing to do to make his team successful,” Arena said. “That’s a rare combination.”

Messi, who won’t turn 25 until Sunday, has already been named World Player of the Year for the past three seasons. Nobody has ever won the award four times.

Messi has also won five La Liga titles, and it has happened with Barcelona’s famed possession game, in which the team will patiently string numerous passes together before ever making an aggressive attacking movement.

“For Messi, it’s not always about scoring,” Arena said. “He’s willing to move off the ball. There are times his job is to connect that 19th pass.”

Of course, there are also the goals, enough of them that he broke Gerd Muller’s record of 67, set in 1972-73 for Bayern Munich.

Messi will not play in this summer’s Olympics — Argentina did not qualify — but he already has a gold medal from the 2008 Games, when he helped defeat rival Brazil in the semifinals.

Indeed, the only hole in Messi’s still-evolving resume is the lack of a World Cup title. He was a backup at age 19 when Argentina lost to Germany in 2006 and was a starter in 2010 when his country was eliminated in the quarterfinals by the same opponent.

Getting that “final piece” can be difficult because the world’s most popular event happens just once every four years.

But Maximiliano Longo and Facundo Torino, natives of Argentina and local soccer standouts at St. Thomas University, are hopeful that the grand prize will eventually happen.

“It’s probably going to come soon,” Longo said. “He has everything — speed, ball control, technique. He has so much strength in his legs, it’s hard to take him down. And he keeps the ball so close, it’s hard to take it away. Plus, his shot is so accurate. He can put it where he wants.”

Messi has become so accomplished that he is most often compared to soccer’s two all-time greats: Pele of Brazil and Diego Maradona of Argentina.

Torino, though, doesn’t like the Pele comparison.

“When I see tape of soccer in the 50s and 60s [Pele’s era], I wonder what they were even playing,” he said. “The game has advanced. Scoring is not as easy as it looked back then.”

Torino, who admits he is biased toward players from his home country, called Maradona “phenomenal” and said he was glad Argentina has had him and Messi.

Pro soccer player Aly Hassan, who competes locally for the Strikers, spent three months in 2009 training in Argentina and got to see Messi in a World Cup qualifier.

He also noticed Messi’s presence off the field.

“His face was on every billboard,” Hassan said. “He was even on milk cartons. He was everywhere.”

Just think of what will happen if Messi is able to deliver the World Cup back to Argentina for the first time since Maradona in ’86.

“Messi is already a Hall of Famer,” FIU’s Arena said. “But if there is ever going to be a time for him to win the World Cup, it will be Brazil in 2014. I’m sure every Argentina fan will be there.”

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