By Mike Woitalla
Lionel Messi preferred to play with marbles and collect picture cards, seemingly uninterested in the soccer played by his two older brothers and his father on the street in front of their house. Then one day, at age 4, he went outside and asked to join them. They were delighted.
“We were shocked to see how good he was,” said Lionel’s father, Jorge. “And he’d never played before.”
From then on, tiny Lionel always joined the play. He also tagged along when his grandmother, Celia, took the older brothers, Rodrigo and Matias, to practice. (When Messi points to the sky after scoring, it's in honor of his grandmother, who died in 1998). One day when the team was a short a player, the coach invited Lionel to join, but suggested he stay near the sideline because he was so much smaller than the other boys.
The first time the ball arrived, it came to his right foot and bounced away. The second time it came to his left and he took off dribbling. He dodged every player who tried to stop him.
The anecdotes are from “Messi,” one of seven brilliantly illustrated books for children ages 7 and up published by Abbeville Press and endorsed by AYSO.
In “Ronaldo,” we learn that Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro’s first name was picked by his older sister and his middle name by his father, a fan of Ronald Reagan (as an actor). Ronaldo’s father, Jose, worked as a gardener and his mother, Dolores, as a cook on the island of Madeira, which Ronaldo left at age 12 for the mainland after Sporting Lisbon had discovered his talent.
At age 15, Ronaldo underwent laser surgery to cure a racing heart, and returned to practice a few days later. Two years later, he made his pro debut. “Ronaldo” also includes a recipe for his favorite meal, Bacalhau a Bras -- although the young readers may marvel more over pictures of some of his 19 cars.
The third player profile in the series is “Zlatan,” and as is the case in each volume, it nicely blends in some history lessons. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was born in Sweden to a Muslim Bosniak father and a Croatian Catholic mother. And a few paragraphs neatly explain Balkan geopolitics.
Three of the volumes are about clubs, “FC Barcelona,” “Manchester United” and “Real Madrid.” And “U.S Men's Team” is an up-to-date look at the U.S. national team, stars past and present -- that also serves as a fine buildup to this summer’s World Cup. The U.S. book -- with profiles of coaches from Thomas Cahill to Jurgen Klinsmann and players from Joe Gaetjens to Landon Donovan -- serves as fine source for anyone of any age on American soccer history. (All of the books are also stat resources.)
Although meant for young readers, there’s nothing childish about the presentation in "Legends Series." The graphics -- such as Gold Cup opponents map in “U.S. Men’s Team” -- are colorful yet clear and informative.
They're simply beautiful books that tell fascinating stories.
WORLD SOCCER LEGENDS SERIES
By Illugi Jokulsson
FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Messi, Real Madrid, Ronaldo, U.S Men's Team, Zlatan
Hardcover. Abbeville Press. $12.95 each.
(A portion of the “World Soccer Legends” proceeds are donated to the Hugo Bustamante AYSO Playership Fund, which covers registration and uniform costs for lower-income children.)
A SOUTH AFRICA PARABLE. The picture book, “The Soccer Fence,” looks at apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa through the eyes of a young black boy who accompanies his mother from their shanty in a Johannesburg township to her job in the home of a wealthy white family. He yearns to join a pickup soccer game with the white kids and the quest tells the story of South Africa’s transition. It includes a two-page “Apartheid Timeline” appendix that makes it a fine elementary school teaching tool.
THE SOCCER FENCE
“A Story of Friendship, Hope, and Apartheid in South Africa”
By Phil Bildner, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson.
Hardcover; Penguin. Age Range: 5-9.