"We are the champions, my friends," bellowed Freddie Mercury. "No time for losers." And that, in some ways, is all there is to say about being a champion. You're the best. In the case of the Champions League, in which Europe's top clubs compete, you are already the best, and now you're competing to be the best of the best. And in the case of Lionel Messi, the best player at Barcelona, the best club in Europe (playing Manchester United in the final on 28 May), you are the best of the best of the best. The bestest.

Yet was there ever a more unlikely champion? The word comes from campionem, Latin for "gladiator, fighter, combatant in the field". But Messi is less fighter, more dodger, a trickster rather than a combatant. As for gladiator . . . Gladiators fight to the death and beat their chests; they wrestle lions and look like Russell Crowe. They don't look like Lionel Messi. For he is short, clinically short (he was injected with growth hormones as a child) and resembles Penfold from Danger Mouse (look closely and imagine him wearing round spectacles).

But there's also a sweetness to the man that makes him an unlikely champ. Asked in an interview to confide in the audience and share a flaw, he said he was "a little bit shy". His favourite trip? "I don't have any particular preferences, but I really enjoyed going to Disneyland." Food? "Anything Argentinian made by my mother." Messi's girlfriend is his childhood friend from Rosario, Argentina. John Terry this is not. Nor Cristiano Ronaldo. These are men who strut through life, liberally applying hair gel with one hand while high-fiving the mirror with the other. They're schmucks who think they're champions.
To be a champion is about more than winning. To champion a cause is to promote or defend it, to stick your neck
out for something you believe in. It is hard to imagine Terry or Ronaldo sticking his neck out for anything but hard cash or a superinjunction. Messi is cut from a different, quick-dry, polyester-based fabric: he is quiet, unassuming, supernaturally good at what he does. He would fight with his little legs and his honour to the end. His nickname? La Pulga, the flea. The perfect name for a gladiator. l

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools