If a young kid is going to show off his magical talent, it might as well be at Disney World.
The last goal of Ayo Akinola’s hat trick on Thursday night—as Toronto FC beat the Montreal Impact 4-3 at the MLS is Back Tournament—had more to do with his strength and composure than anything else, but Impact head coach Thierry Henry had to have been amused by the intelligent and deceptive runs that the young striker made for the two goals before that, since Henry also left defenders in his dust in a similar fashion during his best days as a player. At an early age, Akinola seems to be very capable of a level of awareness and timing that it usually takes players years into their professional careers to achieve.
"I think it's movement. I think for both for Akinola and for Zardes, you see their movement is really good," said Berhalter. "As soon as space opens up on the backline, they're taking advantage of that, which is excellent. So that's really important. And then finishing their chances is really important and the defensive work rate is always going to be there.”
Watch Akinola's hat trick:
While his finishing, speed, intelligence, and composure, are all attributes to be praised, and skills which will hopefully see Akinola have a long and prosperous career, what I like the most about him is the joy that he plays with. Akinola was asked by MLSsoccer.com last year about his favorite player. His answer?
“My favorite player is Ronaldinho. He always had a smile on his face on the field. If you're not having fun, why play? You've got to be loose. He was relaxed, enjoyed the game, loved what he was doing.”
So often in sports, there is an idea of professionalism, how a player must behave, dress, and speak, in order to be taken seriously, which does a disservice to the wonder of a game like soccer. Players come in with wide eyes but immediately lose the looseness, their audaciousness and capacity for taking risks, in order to seem more polished and appeal to that constrictive notion of what a professional athlete should be. They become boring, even if they remain effective.
Vanney's high praise for Akinola:
The disrespect 😩.... too strong and a classy finish. 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/o19PudqcYH— Jozy Altidore (@JozyAltidore) July 17, 2020
Soccer is a game which has joy, expression, and adventure at its core. It is the beautiful game not simply because of its power to unite millions of people around the world, but also because it contains a capacity to take one’s breath away. Whether it’s from a touch, a drop of the shoulder, a great pass or rocket goal, there is always a sense during a game that one might witness something deemed unbelievable or magical.
Those magical moments are products of risk, and for players to take those risks they need to be able to treat the game as what it is: creative play. The magic of Ronaldinho wasn’t just that he had the talent, trophies and stats — but that he played as if he was in the streets toying around with his friends, and in doing so, engaged the imagination of everyone who was lucky enough to witness him.
The hype will come for Akinola. Five goals in two games is impossible to ignore. As he gains more fame and recognition, and as he becomes more important to his team, the pressure on him will grow. He will eventually falter and struggle, many times, and the same qualities of his personality which are being praised now will be looked at as faults. These qualities will include that sense of looseness and adventure. His relaxed nature. The way he approaches the game as the play that it is. His joy.
I hope that in the future, regardless of the success and setbacks that Akinola experiences, that he retains the same child-like wonder and the recognition of the game of soccer as play. It is not and has never been the product of a lack of professionalism. It is instead the best foundation that a great player can have, because not only will that joy keep a player motivated during the bad times, but it will allow someone like Akinola to remain faithful to the game of soccer.
Akinola’s joy will give him the courage to take risks. He will have the motivation to be ambitious and creative, and in turn to engage the imagination of the watching world. That joy will allow him to remind us all that regardless of the serious circumstances in which soccer exists in, it is still just a child's game, and part of what makes a lot of great players unforgettable, is being able to do what the audience thinks is unimaginable. To conjure up magic. To momentarily extend the joy that he feels to the thousands and possible millions whose eyes are glued to his actions.