Sports

Messi Takes the Handoff

What if Leo Messi had trained to be an NFL running back instead?

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi as a football player running back.
Some of Lionel Messi’s best physical attributes happen to also be skills required of running backs Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images.

In this series, our sage referee answers fascinating, vexing, and/or bizarre sports hypotheticals and conundrums. To submit a question to the Sports Authority, email sportsauthority@slate.com.

Haley Swenson asks: One of the common explanations for why the U.S. doesn’t perform well at soccer is that we channel all our best athletes into other sports first, leaving soccer (or so the story goes) with only our fifth-rate rejects. … The real question I have is, what about the reverse? What if Leo Messi had trained to be a running back?

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I like this question, as Haley shares my skepticism regarding the old saw that the United States isn’t good at soccer simply because our most impressive athletes play basketball or football instead. That’s like saying the U.S. knitwear scene is lagging because our most accurate needlers go into phlebotomy.

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There are two big issues to consider when it comes to evaluating an NFL prospect: size and skill. Football tends to prize the beefy body type, but being big and strong doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the soccer pitch. In 2011, Barcelona was far and away the best club in the world, winning La Liga, the Champions League, and the Spanish Super Cup. They also happened to be the shortest team in all of Europe.

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When it comes to skills, it would seem as if the most important quality possessed by the world’s best soccer players is that they are good at soccer, and the same holds true for basketball and football. Being an innately great athlete helps your chances, but the margins are so slim it’s hard to predict how those skills will translate between sports.

Take Manchester United stars Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, who are both wonderful athletes and, at 6’3”, built like NBA point guards. However, as video evidence reveals, their handles make John Havlicek look like Hot Sauce.

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Had they spent their childhoods dribbling basketballs instead of soccer balls, would Pogba and Lukaku have a chance in the NBA? Maybe, but it is far from guaranteed. Every Division III college team in the country has a few 6’3” guys who are fast and strong and have dedicated their lives to the sport. Given the relatively infinitesimal number of players who make it to the NBA, a basketball-focused Paul Pogba would statistically have been more likely to finish his career at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville than on the New Orleans Pelicans.

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Likewise, a LeBron James–led U.S. men’s national team full of marauding, cross-sport giants may beat unskilled competition who like to hoof the ball through the air, but talented squads that rely on dribbling and short passing patterns would sashay and pirouette through our gangly heroes. No matter how mad Russell Westbrook gets at Chile’s midfielders, his size and athleticism would be inconsequential at the highest level of play.

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This brings us to the question of Lionel Messi. Messi is Barcelona’s star and the most skilled soccer player in the world. The debate for greatest player in history has expanded from Pele vs. Maradona to include him, even though, at 30 years old, he is still in his prime.

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If he really wanted to make an NFL team, Messi would be wise to try out as a kicker first. Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, who was the Premier League’s leading goal scorer between 2015 and 2017, easily converted a 50-yarder while wearing running shoes.

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But as a soccer demigod, knocking pigskins through the uprights would be boring for Messi, who is at his best when he’s running and actually doing stuff. That’s why it is more intriguing to imagine him, as Haley’s question posits, at running back.

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Being quick isn’t everything for running backs, but Messi is very quick. He excels at not being caught, a useful skill for an undersized running back. It may sound sacrilegious, but watch this legendary goal scored by a 19-year-old Messi against Getafe in 2007 and try not to think of Barry Sanders:

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At 5’6” and 159 pounds, Messi couldn’t be an every-down bruiser like Leonard Fournette or Marshawn Lynch, as he would likely die a rather avoidable death, but could he make it as a Tarik Cohen or Darren Sproles–type player? Would he be effective as a speedy, change-of-pace option who tries to stretch the defense with limited snaps?

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Messi exemplifies why being small can be an athletic advantage. A lower center of gravity aids balance and, as Willamette University exercise science professor Stasinos Stavrianeas told the Atlantic in 2014, the “quicker stepping pattern [of short players] … makes them more elusive for the defender.” He was talking about soccer, but he could have easily been referring to NFL running backs.

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Some of Messi’s best physical attributes—pace, elusiveness—happen to also be skills required of running backs. Of course, being an NFL back is about much more than being stout and fast. Among other things, you have to be able to block onrushing defenders, withstand punishing hits, and catch the ball on pass plays. Messi hasn’t demonstrated the ability to pick up a safety on a zone blitz, but he did snag a soda can with a one-handed grab in a Pepsi commercial, so that is promising.

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Many will argue that Messi lacks the toughness to be a running back or that he couldn’t handle the less glamorous, non-escape-artist aspects of the position, but, as the best soccer player in the world for a decade, he has been targeted for contact more than anyone else. Sure, he’s being tackled by the ankle-biters of Real Sociedad and not Ray Lewis, but, unlike some of his contemporaries, he doesn’t go down easily. And besides, he’s just really hard to catch.

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Messi’s biggest hurdle would be the physical challenge of adding the requisite size and muscle to endure the egregious punishment of American football. At 5’6”, Messi is the same height as the aforementioned Tarik Cohen, but the Bears running back has 20 pounds on him. Despite multiple YouTube hits for the search query “Fat Messi,” there is little reliable evidence that his frame could add that weight.

He is now on a strict diet that would make getting into NFL shape tough. If he were willing to indulge, he could follow the lead of slender Auburn running back Kam Martin, who had difficulty adding size during his freshman year but added 16 pounds over nine months by eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night before bed.

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Messi could theoretically reach 175 pounds with the help of PB&Js. He’d still be small, but it would at least reduce the chances of him being crushed to death on Sunday Night Football before a national TV audience, an event that would assuredly set soccer back a few years in the United States.

So far, I have just explained what it would be like if Messi woke up one morning and decided he wanted to become a running back. But what if, like our hypothetical LeBron-led U.S. men’s national team, Messi had actually grown up playing gridiron football? Would he develop in a way that would lead to an NFL career?

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Whereas LeBron could have conceivably joined the American Youth Soccer Organization and taken up soccer as a child, the chances that Messi would have encountered American football are slim. His hometown of Rosario, Argentina, didn’t have an amateur tackle football league until 2013, and Messi was rather committed to soccer by then, having already won six La Liga titles with Barcelona. However, Scott Jackson, the founder of a gridiron league in Córdoba, Argentina, notes that “flag football began to be played in Rosario in 1996,” meaning a 9-year-old Messi certainly could have stumbled upon guys running button routes in a local park and started developing his skills.

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A lot was going on in Messi’s life at the age of 9. He had established himself as a star on the youth team of Newell’s Old Boys, Rosario’s premier soccer club. He was also diagnosed with a hormone deficiency and simply stopped growing. Even in a country that worships the 5’5” Diego Maradona, Messi was widely considered to be too tiny to play soccer professionally. “When you saw him you would think: this kid can’t play ball,” his youth coach said. “He’s a dwarf, he’s too fragile, too small.”

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An endocrinologist gave Messi a prescription for hormone injections that the preteen had to administer on himself. Newell’s Old Boys footed the bill after his father encountered financial problems, but the team abruptly refused to continue paying for Messi’s treatments when he was 12. As a result, his family sought a soccer club that would keep paying for the hormones. Barcelona stepped up, and so Messi flew to Spain and launched his legendary career abroad.

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But what would have happened had, say, the Dallas Cowboys offered to pay for his treatment rather than Barcelona? Given the NFL’s history of doing everything in its power to avoid covering the medical costs for its own retired players, it’s unlikely that they’d take a flyer on an Argentine child whose nickname was “the Flea.”

But if they did? Dallas might have gotten the run game needed to help take pressure off its quarterback, and Messi could have achieved something more impressive than any of the accolades or trophies he’s earned at Barcelona: helping Tony Romo win a Super Bowl.

Now that would put the Pele vs. Maradona vs. Messi debate to rest.

Previously in Sports Authority

Would Professional Sports Totally Collapse in a World Without Beer?

How Long Would It Take the Golden State Warriors to Score 20 Points Against Five Ordinary Bros?

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