How 'Messi and Friends' led Northwestern's all-time leading scorer to chase his dreams in Iceland
Thierry Henry laconically flicks a cross toward the penalty spot, to where Matt Eliason is waiting to chest it down. Cushioning the ball perfectly into the air, Eliason throws his body back and catches the falling ball sweetly, as his leg whips around over his head. The net bulges. On the other team, Lionel Messi can only look on in wonder.
If it sounds like a your-name-here dream for the Matt Eliason character, it was, sort of, though in many ways the reality of what followed that fantasy moment is the more meaningful part of his story.
It's a story that has been captured in a short documentary, "Messi and Me," which premieres at New York's Kicking + Screening Festival of soccer films this week. And if in the end it's less a story about dreams coming true than about the truths you can learn about yourself in pursuit of your dreams, it's no less affecting for that.
In July 2013, it was announced that Messi would be playing in a charity game billed as "Messi and Friends" at Chicago's Soldier Field.
The event had attracted some A-list talent, including the likes of Messi and Henry, but as game day approached, the rosters had not yet been filled out. Cue some panicked phone calls around the city, including one to a former star striker at Northwestern University, now in the early stages of pursuing a finance career in Chicago. Eliason jumped at the chance.
The event had been organized as a fundraiser for Messi's charitable foundation, but poor promotion and poor ticket sales had taken some of the luster off the event, and Messi himself would prove to be less than a gracious host -- subbing out in the 68th minute and walking out of the stadium without fulfilling various meet-and-greet commitments. But as it happened, SportsCenter wouldn't be needing him that night anyway, because of what Eliason would do.
As one of his Northwestern teammates, also conscripted for the game, puts it in the film, "I knew exactly what I was on the field for: if I get the ball, give it back to the pros." Eliason, however, a born striker who held his university's goal-scoring record, had not got the memo, even if he now claims to have blacked out from the moment the ball popped up off his chest.
It was a spectacular finish. Taylor Twellman, commentating on the game that day, immediately laughed in appreciative awe at the young man's nerve: "That was awesome!"
And with headline writers left with a bitter taste in their mouth by Messi's antics, Eliason's intervention was a perfect feel-good story to take from the occasion. Eliason, too, enjoyed the media attention, but he quickly found he had something else in mind than riding 15 minutes of internet fame. Some of the questions he was getting about where he would play next had him thinking, "Why not?" Why not make his wonder goal a catalyst to revive the career he should have had?
After an initial abortive tryout with Henry's New York Red Bulls, Eliason managed to catch on with Icelandic first-division team Throttur FC, and after taking a leave of absence from his firm GE Capital, he found himself starting for Throttur in the physical Icelandic league. Navigating culture shock and the realities of professional life, Eliason nonetheless started promisingly. But as the film shows, he ended up trying to play through injury, to the detriment of both his form and his health.
It's in those moments that you get to the true meaning of Eliason's story. Because in terms of the type of happily-ever-after story his goal in Chicago might have suggested, things didn't work out that way. The injury ultimately ended his career at the end of that first season, and a homesick Eliason found himself back in Chicago resuming his finance career. But the experience did change him for the better.
"Obviously I'd have liked to have it work out that I was now the center-forward for Manchester United," he tells ESPN FC. "But I got to follow my dream and to answer any questions that would always have been left hanging for me otherwise. Testing myself, having those experiences, I think it's made me a stronger person."
Many young men might have taken that initial moment of fantasy soccer and lived off it as anecdotal gold for the rest of their lives, but Eliason used it in perhaps the best way possible: not to allow it to change his life, but to give himself the motivation to try to change his own life.
And if in the end he didn't get close to Messi, how many do?
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.