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Marmion, Northwestern grad embraces his chance to play with Messi at Soldier Field on ESPN

CHICAGO – On every one of his soccer teams, Gerardo Alvarez was a playmaker.

Club teams. Playmaker.

Marmion Academy. Playmaker.

Northwestern. Playmaker.

Today, that role will change, as will Alvarez’s life. He will share the field with global superstar Lionel Messi and a slew of other internationally famous soccer players as part of a “Messi & Friends” charity match at Soldier Field.

“I’m still thinking it’s too good to be true,” said Alvarez, a 2003 graduate of Marmion. “I’m not fully going to believe it until I’m on the field.

“On most of the teams I’ve ever played on, I’ve always been the playmaker, the creative mind. On this team, I already know I have to connect the passes and let those guys do the magic.”

Because every one of those guys – starting with Messi – is a magician.

Then again, Alvarez’s story contains some magic, as well.

Up until a few weeks ago, Alvarez figured his competitive soccer-playing days were in his personal rearview mirror. He had been an all-state player at Marmion, where he earned Kane County Chronicle All-Area honors, and he carried that success to Northwestern, where he was named Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2003 and finished his college career with 28 goals, including nine game-winners.

Great teams. Great memories. But, like a soccer ball, time rolls on.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013. Alvarez, 28, was working as a branch manager at Chase Bank in Woodridge (after all, the guy has a degree from Northwestern).

His phone rang. On the other line was his old college coach, Tim Lenahan, who had been tabbed to be an assistant coach for one of the squads in the Messi charity game.

It turned out that Messi & Friends needed a few extra players to fill out the rosters.

The gist of the conversation went something like this:

Lenahan: Are you free?

Alvarez: Are you kidding?

Since then, Alvarez has started his mornings with training runs before heading to work. He wants to be as ready as possible for his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

At the same time, Alvarez is not stressed about playing alongside Messi, 26, who already is a four-time FIFA Ballon d’Or award winner as the world’s best player.

Alvarez is smiling. He’s laughing. He’s marveling at life’s wild surprises.

Wouldn’t you be?

“It’s comical that I’m going to step on the same field as Messi,” Alvarez said with a chuckle. “Only in America do you walk out of the office as a branch manager on a Friday, and you lace up your boots and you play with Messi on a Saturday.”

Alvarez played coy as he brought up the subject with his father, Enrique, an avid soccer fan who lives in Yorkville.

The gist of the conversation went something like this:

Son: Did you hear about the game with Messi at Soldier Field? Do you want to go?

Dad: Nah.

Son: You should go.

Dad: Nah.

Son: What if I told you I was playing?

“I thought he was joking,” Enrique Alvarez said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

He wasn’t.

“We’re still in shock,” Enrique Alvarez said.

For Alvarez to play in the star-studded game would be a big deal regardless, but especially because his family is from Argentina. They moved here in 1991.

Messi, of course, is from Argentina. You should see him again in the World Cup and the Olympics as he pursues more milestones in his already remarkable career.

As for Saturday, Enrique and Miriam Alvarez will be at Soldier Field to see their son. Other relatives will watch elsewhere. The game will be on ESPN starting at 6 p.m.

It would be wrong for Alvarez’s parents to say that Saturday’s game will make them proud of their son. They already were proud of him. They have been proud of him for a long time.

“We’re happy for him,” Enrique Alvarez said.

Gerardo Alvarez is happy, too. He has tried to explain the significance of Saturday’s opportunity to non-soccer fans who might be unfamiliar with Messi.

“Take whatever sport is your favorite sport,” Alvarez said. “Or take your icon, your idol, growing up. And try and picture getting a phone call and asking you to go on the field and play with this person in his prime.”

Alvarez laughs again. He jokes that he hopes to sign with a European team after this.

“I think the only thing that can top this is meeting the pope,” Alvarez said.

Ah, yes. Pope Francis. He’s from Argentina, too.

Who knows? Maybe he’ll call next week.

• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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