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L. Madinda

"Mom! I am going to tackle Messi this afternoon" - Inside the remarkable journey of Sabah ace Levy Madinda

03:00 GMT+3 01/09/2021
Levy Madinda Sabah GFX
The midfielder has impressed in the Malaysia Super League this term, having previously squared off against some of the game's biggest names

“Mom! I am going to tackle Messi this afternoon!”

Those were the precise words of current Sabah midfielder Levy Madinda to his mother when he called her in Libreville to notify that he would be lining up for his then club, Celta de Vigo, against Barcelona that fateful afternoon of March 30th 2013.

Barcelona, the Spanish heavyweights, were composed of none other than six-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi and numerous other superstars.

Madinda, meanwhile, was then viewed as a greenhorn in the grandiose, yet gruelling world of top flight Spanish football.

The Gabonese midfielder emerged from the match, scarred after a laborious 2-2 draw result but hardened by the lessons imparted by Messi and the other cognoscentis of Barcelona, which he would use throughout his career.

That match, together with a few other quintessential moments, defined the decorated career Madinda had as a professional footballer in one of the world’s best leagues.

“I was truly fortunate as from the early stages of my career, my talents were able to take me to a competitive league like La Liga," Madinda told Goal

"I was a young footballer then, dreaming of making it and I was blessed to have been given that opportunity. Facing giants such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid not only enhanced my game, but also changed my mentality. I have brought that experience with me everywhere I went.”

Reminiscing on how Madinda and Messi first met in 2013, he remembers it as if it was yesterday, when their teams stepped onto the pitch of Estadio Municipal de Balaídos, in Vigo, Spain that fateful afternoon.

"I instantly felt nothing but greatness the moment he set foot onto the field," the former Celta man explains. "Messi's outstanding character and persona was on display for all of us to see. He was warm to everyone, even the opposing players and I remembered that he smiled at us a lot!

"Rafinha is a good friend of mine and I had told him prior to the game if he could inform Messi that I wished to swap jerseys with him once that match was over. In the end, it was not meant to be but to my amazement, I was able to swap with Andres Iniesta, which was not a duff trade at all!

"Iniesta is one player I can never forget. I was tasked by the head coach to track his movements and mark him throughout the match, but he was impossible to handle. He was close to being the perfect player; someone who played simple but did not lose the ball. At the end of it, I felt like he gave me a good football lesson!"

The result after years of La Liga masterclasses were on display each time he marshalled the Sabah midfield in the Malaysian Super League this season.

His dazzling performances for Sabah have earned him another grand prize in football: a callup to Gabon’s national side for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Libya and Egypt.

But any discourse on Gabonese football would not be complete if it does not include a conversation on Arsenal’s star forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the “witty” team-mate whom Madinda has played alongside in the Gabonese national team for the past 10 years.

"I have known Aubameyang since 2011 and as someone with an endearing character who is loved by everyone in the team," the 29-year-old stressed. 

"As one of the best players in Africa and the world, his levels of humility are truly amazing. More importantly, he has been an essential component for this team, as he is able to drive us towards greater success. I have been extremely privileged to call him my team-mate."

It was his relationship with Aubameyang that was teased to the football buffs in Malaysia when it was made known that he was joining Sabah.

Malaysians, initially oblivious as to who he was, immediately warmed up to the idea and were sold, given his marquee stature plus their own affinity towards Aubameyang, Arsenal and the glitz of the English Premier League.

“When I was first told about the offer from Sabah and Malaysian football, I had no clue," Madinda admitted. 

"I had to confer with my ex-Celta de Vigo colleague Natxo Insa (Johor Darul Ta’zim’s midfielder) who helped to convince me about the Malaysian Super League and I was tempted to give it a go. The next thing I knew, I was packed and flew straight to Kota Kinabalu.”

As he departs for Benghazi, Libya for the first game, Sabah will have two remaining league matches to play and will gravely miss his services.

Notwithstanding, as he returns from what is hoped to be a rewarding international break, Madinda would be expected to bring that experience with him as a generator for the much needed boost Sabah could use in its campaign throughout the rest of the season, particularly in the Malaysia Cup, a competition which they have never won.

Significantly, Madinda’s international stint with Gabon would help to draw in new interest in Malaysian football, particularly from intercontinental audiences and aficionados of the international game.

Moreover, if Madinda is able to eclipse and put Mohamed Salah in the shade come the match against the Pharaohs, that, would be the splendiferous chapter not only for Madinda and Gabon’s World Cup dream, but also Malaysian club football and its communion that has been starved of new success stories.