When a former college athlete becomes an overnight sensation, it reignites his journey towards professional soccer.
If you wrote the script for Netflix, it would be rejected for being far too cliché. A young man, the leading goal scorer in his college’s history is working a day job at GE Capital when he gets a call from his former coach. The greatest player in the world, Lionel Messi, is coming to town to host a charity game. He’s bringing some of his world-famous friends and colleagues to play in a nationally televised game on ESPN. And they need a few players to fill out the teams. Are you interested? Yet, this scene played out in real life in July of 2013. And thus begins the story of Messi & Me, a new documentary that covers the unlikely journey back to soccer of a young man named Matt Eliason.
Eliason did much more than just participate in the game. Positioned in the 18-yard-box, he cushioned an aerial pass from soccer legend Thierry Henry with his chest, and with his back to the goal, Eliason unleashed a perfect bicycle kick past the goalkeeper, stealing the spotlight from Lionel Messi himself and a highlight that would make Eliason an instant celebrity. The film not only captures this lightning-in-a-bottle moment; it follows Eliason as his newfound fame helps restart his soccer journey as he pursues a professional career in Iceland.
The idea for the film occurred shortly thereafter when Northwestern alum and executive producer Gregg Latterman reached out to friends and fellow alumni—producer Jake Abraham and director Renny Maslow. “Gregg reached out and said, hey, there’s this young soccer phenom from Northwestern who just did something ridiculous. Would you be interested in following him around?” says Abraham.
And follow him around they did. All the way to Iceland, when Eliason left his job to pursue professional soccer after a failed tryout with the New York Red Bulls. “When Matt decided to go to Iceland, the film became more complicated financially,” Abraham says. “But the story was great! Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges Matt faced was that he had never left the country before. When your character faces big challenges, that makes for a great story.”
In the film, Eliason is not only pursuing his dream of playing pro soccer, he is having to come to grips with the cultural challenges of a new language, new customs, new everything. For Abraham, the value of Eliason’s story goes far beyond the usual soccer stories we have become accustomed to viewing on the big screen.
“Of the millions of boys and girls playing soccer in the world, the ones that end up being superstars aren’t even one in a million. It’s more like one in a hundred million,” Abraham says. “I think it’s Important to tell the stories of some of the other people that got there. Here was a kid who had massive talent, massive luck as it would turn out, and its still so hard to reach that level. Just the fact alone that he had a British coach and that his coaching was in English was a miracle. All the cross chat that you hear from the players on the field is in the Icelandic language. Just for him to learn the terminology on the field was a challenge. It’s a language spoken by a few hundred thousand people in the world. It’s not even as big as my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Matt was a white kid from the Midwestern suburbs, and he was used to fitting in everywhere. Everyone looked like him, talked like him, dressed like him, and now all of a sudden, he’s an outsider. He’s forced to think about his own life and his own privileges now.”
Though the story has almost a reverse roller coaster feel from most sports movies—the high of an accomplishment on national television, followed by the battle through the lower ranks of the professional sport, Abraham feels that is precisely why the story is so special.
“Most of the films that come out now are about the heroics and the accomplishments,” Abraham says. “Even at the pro level, the journey is what makes it meaningful. For a guy like Matt Eliason, it wasn’t always easy to see that on day one. When things don’t go the way you expect them to go, it’s hard when you are a first-class athlete and you have high expectations. But when you step back and see what that journey has brought him? It’s hugely valuable. We have to make the most of the journey and not always look at the outcome. When you do, it distorts the lens which we should look through.”
Messi & Me is now available via streaming at kickingandscreeningmedia.com.