When the Spanish midfield maestro, Xavi Hernandez, hung his boots and bade Barcelona goodbye in 2015, the entire football world paused to salute the man who defined an era. Thiago Alcantara who played alongside him at Barcelona hailed him as “eternal” and fellow Spaniard, Cesc Fabregas, one of the many players touted as the ‘next Xavi’, declared decisively that “there will never be another Xavi”. Not many disagreed.
Xavi climbed to the zenith and propelled his club and country to world dominance. But that was not meant to happen, according to experts’ opinion on Xavi’s chances as a teen.
In their view – which was informed by years of scouting and training teenage players, alongside careful consideration of football trends at the time – Xavi Hernandez could not excel as a midfielder. He was too small. The perfect midfielder, meanwhile, ought to be athletic and strong.
With the burden of such criticism and dismissal on his young shoulders, Xavi forged on and went on to become the best midfielder of his generation. He not only proved the well-intended experts wrong, but he also redefined the midfield role through his unique technicality and paved a path for countless others who, like him, were hitherto overlooked and cast aside.
It would have been perfectly understandable if the indictment of his height and size discouraged his pursuit of a football career. After all, he had little said in the matter. But he knew he could play – in a uniquely special way – and he stuck to his guns, worked hard, and made history as a football legend and historical reference point.
I find Xavi’s self-belief and courageous insistence on re-writing the rulebooks very inspiring and a clear demonstration of the propelling power that lies in knowing one’s self and having complete, unshaken confidence in one’s abilities. This level of self-assuredness provides the courage required to, sometimes, neglect the established rulebooks and travel down the path less taken where, more often than not, unique greatness is discovered. The courage to be yourself.
Xavi is proof that the unfamiliar is not necessarily wrong and no one should be inhibited, or forced to make life-altering changes on the account of established norms and standards. As a popular Yoruba proverb says, there are multiple entries points to a market. This is an important lesson I believe would be of tremendous help to young people as they chart their path in life, just as it helped me in my younger years as a university undergraduate.
I had always sought a profession where I could put my natural eloquence, writing skill, and affinity for sports to good use and that for me was sports media. I chose Mass Communication as a course of study for this specific purpose. The norm was to complete the course, serve the country, and then settle for the arduous task of getting a job. But I knew I was fast running out of time. My admission into university was delayed by previous unsuccessful attempts to study abroad. As a result, during one of the prolonged ASUU strikes in my 200-level, I made a move and secured an internship with the late Felix Okugbe, a veteran journalist and former Head of Sports at DAAR Communications.
All through the strike, I was helping with productions and participating in presentations. It was a refreshing experience and I knew I was on to something. When the strike ended and school resumed, I refused to relinquish the opportunity and risk losing momentum. So I started to make weekly trips from the school campus in Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, to Sango-Ota where Felix’s studio was. Interestingly, Sango Ota, according to state boundaries, is also another town in Ogun State, which meant that I was traveling from Ogun to Ogun through Ikeja, the Lagos capital. I always found that funny.
The trips were daunting but the experience was far more rewarding. I had access and opportunity and my dream to talk sports in front of an audience took flight. When I graduated from the University, I had already built a body of work that gave me a solid footing and a roadmap that I intuitively followed.
Another football player whose story and admirable persistence resonates deeply with me is Angel Di Maria. I have a complicated relationship with the Argentine. He after all failed to hit his stride at my favorite football club, Manchester United, despite costing us enough money to purchase a small country back in 2014. Worse, he scored the goal that denied Nigeria’s Dream Team the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. These complications aside though, he is an individual I respect.
The arc of his career, especially his rise from the streets of Rosario in Argentina where he grew up to mainstream Europe as one of the greats, is another testament to the surmounting power of self-will, identification of one’s talents, and consistent growth efforts.
Angel Di Maria grew up in a home where there was barely enough. His father’s dream of playing football at the professional level was cut short by a knee injury that forced him to earn a keep as a coal miner. A young Di Maria had to join the business to increase household income and remarkably scrape coins together to acquire locally made football shoes for practice.
His mother once recounted how Di Maria never failed to practice every evening, despite a hard day’s work of delivering coal around the neighborhood. His true desire was to play football and he never let anything get in the way of that. His focus and hard work eventually paid off. He went from the streets to lifting the Champions League trophy with Real Madrid, the most successful club in Europe. He is still making waves today at PSG – despite his travails at Manchester United, but I forgive him.
I came across MTN Nigeria’s Pulse campaign and couldn’t agree more. We derive meaning, joy, and fulfillment from discovering our life’s true purpose and living out our dreams. The discovery process is undefined and personal to each individual. But the trick, I believe, is to trust your guts, stay true to yourself, work hard, and try to enjoy every experience. Above all, #DoYou. The world might just have a thing or two to learn from you.
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