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Messi restores some credibility to the game; other mailbag items

After bathing in the cesspool of FIFA politics last week, I'll admit it: I wanted to hear a story that restored some credibility to the great global game of soccer. And wouldn't you know it, I found one, courtesy of Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona, an energetic Baltimore foundation and a 17-year-old high school senior from Suwanee, Ga., named Jordyn Farrell.

In a column back in February, I briefly mentioned the Craig Willinger Fund, a group that started in 2008 when Baltimore soccer fans helped raise money so that Willinger, a Bayern Munich fan with terminal leukemia, could make a dream trip to Germany to watch his team play in person. The non-profit organization -- with Willinger chairing its board of directors -- now raises money to send other cancer-stricken soccer fans to events in the U.S. and abroad.

One of my Atlanta-area readers, Nick Farrell, read the column in February and contacted the Willinger Fund about his daughter, Jordyn. A huge Barcelona and Messi fan and a rec-league player herself, Jordyn was diagnosed with dysgerminoma, a type of ovarian cancer, after the discovery of a tumor in February 2009, and she completed treatment in November '09 after a recurrence of the disease.

The Willinger Fund is just getting started, really: Its first two trip recipients were Willinger (in '08) and former University of Richmond goalkeeper Katy Hudson, a cancer survivor who attended last summer's World Cup and got to spend significant time behind the scenes with the U.S. national team in South Africa. The third winner (after a selection process) was Jordyn, who got an expenses-paid trip to attend Barcelona's 3-1 victory over Villarreal at the Camp Nou on Nov. 13.

"Just being in the stadium was a soccer fanatic's dream," Jordyn said, not realizing that there would be much more than that coming her way. Barcelona's foundation made sure she and her father had VIP seats (12 rows away from the field), and after Barcelona's victory she was taken to the garage where the players park their cars. Jordyn met and/or got autographs from Xavi, Pedro, Javier Mascherano and Eric Abidal.

And then, just as the clock struck 2 a.m., Messi appeared. He had already scored twice on the night, but he wasn't done making an impression on the visiting Americans.

What followed was the result of a long process. The Willinger Fund had contacted Messi's father, Jorge, who runs Messi's foundation in Argentina. Jorge connected the Willinger Fund to Messi's brother, Rodrigo, who was in Barcelona and helped set up Jordyn's meeting with the Barça star.

When they finally met, Messi signed Jordyn's Barcelona jersey and posed for a picture. "It was exhilarating," Jordyn said. "I didn't know until right before I met him that he would actually be there."

"Messi was amazing," said her father, Nick. "He was really genuine about it when he came over. She told me she's never going to wash that jersey again."

The Farrells are framing the signed Barcelona jersey with their ticket stubs from the game and the photograph of Jordyn with Messi. Jordyn, a senior at North Gwinnett High, says she wants to take it with her to college next year, which would make for an awfully cool conversation piece.

"She was diagnosed with cancer twice, and the meaning of soccer to her was so huge throughout this process," her father said. "They're bringing an extra bit of hope for kids as they're going through some really tough times."

Even better, Jordyn has been cancer-free for just over a year. "She has one more big scan right before Christmas, just to see if things are still moving in the right direction," Nick said. "All the indications are good."

If the world's best soccer player played even a small role in that, then so much the better. Good on you, Lionel Messi. (To donate or apply to the Craig Willinger Fund, go here.)

NCAA men's College Cup is this weekend. Who wins it all? -- @Johnbo01

It should be a fun weekend with four deserving teams among the final four in Santa Barbara: Akron, which has unfinished business after losing in last year's final; Michigan, the 10-seed that upset Maryland last weekend; Louisville, the undefeated top seed that beat UCLA 5-4 last week; and North Carolina, the traditional ACC powerhouse that has gone through on penalties in three straight tournament games. College soccer often gets a bad rap, but it still produces a number of solid pros for MLS and the national team, and there will be several big talents to watch this weekend.

Keep an eye on Akron forwards Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks, midfielder Perry Kitchen and defenders Kofi Sarkodie and Zarek Valentin; Michigan forwards Justin Meram and Soony Saad; North Carolina midfielder Michael Farfan; and Louisville defender J.T. Murray. The national semifinals will be broadcast on ESPNU and ESPN2 on Friday, with the final being shown at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2.

I'll go with Akron to win it all. Coach Caleb Porter has had the most talent in the country for a while now, and all he needs to validate his program's success is an NCAA championship.

In your opinion, who deserves the 2010 Ballon d'Or?-- @ShortCease10

I've written before that while I think Lionel Messi is the world's best player, Xavi deserves the 2010 Ballon d'Or as the world player of the year.

I have to say that I was disappointed Wesley Sneijder was left off the final three-man short list for the award. Xavi and Messi deserve to be on there, but Sneijder is more deserving than Andrés Iniesta. Granted, Iniesta scored the year's biggest goal (to win the World Cup final for Spain), but he wasn't Spain's best player during that tournament, and he was out injured for more than a month during the key club stretch of 2010, when Barcelona was knocked out in the Champions League semis by Inter Milan.

Sneijder, of course, was the key figure in Inter's run to the Champions League, Italian league and Coppa Italia titles, and he turned on the scoring jets during the Netherlands' journey to the World Cup final. He deserves to be in the final three.

A couple more points on the Ballon d'Or: I'm still not sure why the award coincides with the calendar year instead of the European season (ending with the World Cup). And it's worth noting that all three finalists (Messi, Xavi and Iniesta) not only play for Barcelona but also were developed in Barcelona's remarkable youth academy, La Masía.

That's all for this week. Back at you soon ...

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