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In Good Conscience

Loyalty has no price for little flea and Munster Man

In the modern era, every man has his price. Or so it seems.

Club loyalty, however, still has full value in Barcelona, and in the rugby family of Limerick on the west coast of Ireland.

Leading up to Barcelona's trouncing of Manchester City on Wednesday, the English media ran that old story about Lionel Messi surely one day cashing in on a move to the English Premier League (EPL) - and switching sides and his bank balance to City.

He gave his answer on the field. Messi is scarcely match fit after a month-long layoff through injury, so all that he could accomplish was a hat-trick, being taken down for a penalty kick that Neymar missed and an assist for Neymar.

Heaven help City if the little fellow is fit and firing in the return game. And so much for the theory that the coaching of Pep Guardiola could undo what he helped to liberate when he was at Barca.

The game is as good as its players. And Guardiola's plan of leaving out City's leading scorer Sergio Aguero in order to congeal the midfield to deny Messi freedom of movement backfired somewhat.


PHOTO: REUTERS

A man of action rather than words, Foley (above) graduated from player to head coach... He, like his father Brendan, lived for his game, and for Munster and Ireland.

The Catalan should know better, because he was part of the first two-thirds of Messi's 12 years, and counting, commitment to Barca.

In simple maths, Wednesday was the 37th time that Messi scored a hat-trick for Barcelona.

In simple logic, the British press can assume all they like that every footballer craves either the cash or the challenge of the EPL.

But, so far, Messi has realised that the climate, the style, the beauty of playing in harmony with the likes of Andres Iniesta, is what makes him the star that he is.

Yes, Lionel is a genius. Yes, he could probably mesmerise on a weekly basis wherever he chooses to play.

But why, other than his recent costly spat with the Spanish tax authorities, would he give a second thought to leaving? Barcelona is his home away from home - the club took him when he moved from Argentina as an underweight child whose family could not afford the US$1,000 (S$1,390)-a-month payments for growth hormone treatment.

He was 13 at the time. The loyalty binds both ways.

His first coach there was Carles Rexach, but there were others who fast tracked Messi through the academy and Barca B teams up to the full side at the age of 17.

"Coaches don't make great players," Bill Shankly, the sage of Liverpool once told me. "Mothers and fathers make great players."

A Messi in other words is born, not made. He was great by the time Frank Rijkaard promoted him to the Barcelona first team. He continued to be great through the whirligig of successive coaches (After Rijkaard came Guardiola, then Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino and now Luis Enrique).

He plays with some mightily gifted players, from Xavi Hernandez to Iniesta, Neymar and Luis Suarez.

Messi now is the heartbeat of his team. he has played 573 games, scored 476 goals, and changed his role but so far never his club. Long may it continue.

In Ireland, alas, there has been an abrupt tremor in the pulse of the community. Rugby is as much the game that men of Limerick play as football is in Barcelona.

Last Sunday, the west coast club Munster were due to play Racing 92 in Paris in the European Champions Cup. The game was called off after Anthony Foley was found dead in his hotel bed.

Known as The Munster Man, he was just 42. He was the son of a Munster captain and led the only club he ever aspired to playing for to win the Heineken Cup, rugby's equivalent to the Champions League, in 2006.

A man of action rather than words, Foley graduated from player to head coach. He leaves a wife and two sons. But he, like his father Brendan, lived for his game, and for Munster and Ireland.

"He just saw the game in the simplest way," said Johan Erasmus, the South African who became Munster's director of rugby six months ago. "And that was to be tough up front and play the game in an uncompromising way. That's the type of character he was."

Erasmus, an uncompromising opponent who became a colleague, has crossed the globe to share Foley's world.

The Springbok, and many, many grown men who cried at Foley's funeral on Friday has no way of knowing why a top sportsman dies in his sleep at such a young age.

But the whole of Munster knows that the only way to honour what Foley lived for is to play the game. Today, the team will have to find the will and the heart to face Glasgow Warriors in the same Champions Cup competition.

Messi and Foley are, or were, men with more in common than the games they played would suggest.

Messi, 1.70m and 67 kg, was affectionately known as La Pulga, The Flea, in his home town of Rosario.

Foley, 1.91m and 111kg, goes to his untimely grave as The Axel, a reference to his huge physical and mental strength, a fulcrum of the team's effort.

Their backgrounds, and to an obvious extent their physique, made them. They could not, in a sense, be more different.

But what sustained Foley, and so far has been the rock of Messi's life and career, is the very simple tie to "their" club.

Money cannot buy loyalty.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Loyalty has no price for little flea and Munster Man'. Print Edition | Subscribe