Health lecturer reminisces over former football career and the challenges of playing against FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi

In Adults, In the Press, News, School Leavers, on the 14th, March 2016

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Written by NCTJ Trainee Journalists Nick Gullon and Jonathan Barber

As Barcelona forward Lionel Messi celebrates winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or for a fifth time, a Spennymoor Town defender knows all about the challenges of trying to stop arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen.

Stephen Capper, who was capped 68 times for the Republic of Ireland youth team, had the pleasure of lining up against the Argentinean captain during the FIFA World Youth Championships in 2003.

The former Republic of Ireland under 19 captain said: “I’ve never played against someone who has made such an impact in a short space of time.

“We were playing Argentina in a warm up game for the World Cup. Carlos Tevez was their main man back then and we were putting all our efforts into marking him.

“It was all going to plan and we were leading 2-0 when they decided to change things around, so they brought on this little boy. We all thought he was one of the ball boys.

“Within five minutes, he had scored once and hit the bar. Our manager was screaming from the side for someone to tackle him, but we couldn’t get near him.”

The 32-year-old, now a lecturer in health at Darlington College, backed the decision to award Messi the title of the world’s best player over Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who was looking to win the award for the third year in succession.

“Messi has always been very much a team orientated player. He doesn’t have that desire for personal accolades; it is all about the team.

“Ronaldo is the opposite of that. He is not a very happy man when everything is not about him.”

Messi and Ronaldo were not the only world class talents the Spennymoor defender came up against during his successful youth career. When asked to name a dream team of players he has faced, the final XI he selected would take some beating…

Goalkeeper– Chris Kirkland- Perhaps the surprise inclusion in Stephen’s line-up is former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland who whilst playing for Coventry Under 19s put in what Stephen described as “the best performance I have ever seen in my life in goal.” Stephen also joked, “He had a magnetic force around the goal that day.” Kirkland, who won one England cap, is now in the Championship with Preston.

Left Back– Phillip Lahm- World Cup winning captain Phillip Lahm is still at the top of his game with Bayern Munich and despite now often featuring for the German side as a central midfielder, Lahm is in defence for Capper’s dream team as he is “a phenomenal left-back and I think that is his best position.” Lahm has now retired from international football but made 113 appearances for his country.

Right Back– Pablo Zabaleta -Reached the World Cup final with Argentina in 2014 and has made 200 league appearances for his club side Manchester City. Capper described Zabaleta as a “machine” when he played against the 31 year-old and said the full-back “played quality, exactly as he does now.”

Centre Backs– Javier Mascherano and Nigel De Jong- Although both not strictly centre backs by trade, Mascherano and De Jong have played in defence at times and Mascherano is often used in this position for current club Barcelona. Having left Manchester City, De Jong now plays for AC Milan and Stephen admitted “I can’t leave either of these two out” with both having featured in World Cup finals for their respective nations Argentina and Holland.

Centre Midfield– Andres Iniesta- the Spaniard scored the winning goal in the World Cup final and has also enjoyed a glittering club career with Barcelona, lifting the Champions League four times. Capper said, “You knew he was brilliant after ten minutes of playing against him. I always say Iniesta is the best player I played against because I played against him three or four times”.  Still a regular for club and country, Iniesta has won 107 caps for his country.

Centre Midfield– Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben- Both players have been pushed back into central midfield because of the array of attacking talent which Capper has lined up against in his youth days. Capper was part of a Republic of Ireland Under 18 side that beat Holland and described Sneijder who now plays for Galatasaray as an “unbelievable player who could put the ball wherever he wanted and control the game.” Capper also said Robben was “a great runner with the ball” and joked his Ireland side “built a massive cement wall against the goal” to stop Holland scoring.

Forward– Robin Van Persie- Now with Fenerbache, Van Persie featured in the same Holland Under 18 team as Robben and Sneijder and all three of these players went on to be World Cup finalists with their country in 2010. Capper said, “We did really well to defend against Holland over two games and only concede one goal considering they had absolutely annihilated teams.” Van Persie has now scored 50 senior international goals in 101 appearances.

Forward– Cristiano Ronaldo- The Portugese superstar needs no introduction having won the Ballon D’or three times and Capper admitted, “He is a far better player now than he was when I originally played against him but he is self-made to a degree. My biggest compliment to Ronaldo is the dedication he has playing football.” Ronaldo is now Portugal’s record goal scorer as well as Real Madrid’s highest ever goal scorer having netted 327 goals in just 282 games for his club.

Forward– Lionel Messi- Even though Capper only played against Messi for 20 minutes in a friendly, the five time Ballon D’or winner simply could not be left out of this remarkable team. Capper said, “I have never played against someone in such a short time frame where they had such an impact. I knew he would be unbelievable, when we saw him we were sat in the changing room saying this fella is unreal.” Messi, still only 28, has scored a staggering 395 goals for Barcelona and led Argentina to the World Cup final in 2014, picking up the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.

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