Every city has a monument that is its point of reference: a building or landmark that you can find your way home by looking at or approaching, no matter where you are in the city. In Rio, it’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer looking down from Mount Corcovado; In Berlin, it is the majestic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic universe, there is something eternally comforting about these fixed facts.
In the existence of many football fans, the World Cup is such a fixed point. As we go through our weeks and months, our joys and disappointments, the World Cup is always there, never more than four years away, an event where we mark the stages of our lives. We first learn about it in our youth and we still yearn for it in our autumns and our winters. It’s probably the only thing other than the number of years we’ve lived that can measure our age: I’m 43, but it’s important to me that I’ve seen nine World Cups.
As we watch the World Cup, we begin to see certain patterns that repeat themselves in each tournament. There are groups that excite us at the beginning, then gently fade away, melting into the ether like unrequited romances: these are “summer flames” like 2014’s Columbia. There are teams that are not good. Enough to win the whole thing, but the eventual World Cup winners will be given their toughest stage of the entire journey: these are the “gatekeepers” like a resilient Argentina team coached by Jorge Sampaoli, who France had to overcome in the round of 16. In 2018. The side, who Sampaoli said were going out to play “with a knife between their teeth”, lost after a thrilling duel in which they forced the normally vulnerable France into an all-out attack. Widely regarded as the greatest game of the World Cup, Kylian Mbappé took his first leap to greatness when he scored a first-half penalty and scored twice in the second half in five minutes. It was also the first time France looked like they might actually be champions. Senegal in 2002 came to the event with more hype than most expected, and there are other teams who go on in thrilling fashion to make it all about them, if only for a short time. They are commonly known as “dark horses”, but I prefer to call them my coined phrase. Stadium podcast cohost Ryan Hunn: “The wedding crashers.”
However, the most reliable pattern of all is “The Last Dance”. This is the moment when an elite player – one who has had such an impact on the game that they are a monument in their own right – prepares to play their final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and perhaps unfair measure by which we judge a footballer’s greatness, as it is a path where chance plays an unusually large role. It means being in a series of games played for over a month, for which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fully fit and then somehow complete a team around them. Judging a player’s greatness by a World Cup tournament is as absurd as judging a university student on the results of a one-hour exam after five years of study.
But this is the point that Leo Messi has now reached, and he has confirmed that this will be his last World Cup. With each season he has moved towards both the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentinian team: an all-action no. 10 as a more patient, more focused and more withdrawn playmaker than his current incarnation. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels like the warning realization that you’ve already reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: you’ve enjoyed the journey, but you fear you haven’t enjoyed it enough.
The last time football felt this sharp was before the 2006 World Cup, when Zinedine Zidane declared that the match would be the last time he graced a football pitch. Then, every game was watched with an acute sense of danger, knowing that any loss to France would spell the end for Zidane. The night before the final, the Frenchman was so caught up in his talent that I spent an evening watching highlights of his career on YouTube, followed by a short walk near my apartment. I’m a little embarrassed to reveal this, but on reflection I think I was sad. Over the years, Zidane’s drama was a constant source of salvation, of beauty: I knew that no matter how hard my work week was, I could tune in on a Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one miraculous thing for his club or country. .
It was the same for Messi. There have been countless times over the past few years that I’ve taken a short break from my desk to walk across town, and that break quickly turned into a 90-minute abandonment of my work as soon as I passed a local pub and spotted Messi’s. The team was ready to start. Pep Guardiola told us this a long time ago: “Always look at Messi”, because someday we won’t be able to. I’ll never get to see the Northern Lights in person, but watching Messi, the famous loner on all those TV screens, is probably the closest thing I’ll ever see to that celestial wonder: an eerie presence that hangs above us, unbeknownst to most of us. A void that illuminates it so passionately.
As Messi prepares for his final dance, he will do so with perhaps the most combative cast he has ever seen, as Argentina won last year’s Copa America for the first time since 1993. Messi has been part of several national squads with immense talent – perhaps most notably featuring 2006 World Cup selection Pablo Aimer, Carlos Tevez, Hernan Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Roman Riquelme – but none decisive. Here he can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the daring and charismatic goalkeeping of Emi Martínez, the excellent finishing of Lautaro Martínez and Julian Álvarez and the creative genius of Angel Di María. Last but not least, he has his trusty lieutenant Rodrigo de Paul, who seems to be the first on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.
The Copa America win over hosts Brazil was a doubly significant milestone for Messi, who was named player of the tournament, as it took place at the iconic Maracana Stadium. It meant that he claimed a senior title beyond Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he was burdened to emulate or somehow surpass, and it meant that, on some level, he was relieved of so much pressure. It was the first tournament where the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to Messi carrying the team. Dazzling in the early rounds, he cut a tired figure towards the end of the final, missing the chance to win the match where he would have scored his sharpest round. Along the way, he has had to draw on his teammates’ strengths more than ever: one-on-one with Martinez with his penalty against Colombia or Di Maria with his winner against Brazil, they rose to the challenge. Watching him collapse at the final whistle made it clear that Messi knew he could no longer be seen as an eternal underachiever for his country. When we saw him tear through Estonia in a recent friendly, score all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or set the tone perfectly against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense someone playing with more freedom in blue-and-white. it was. White shirt than usual.
It remains to be seen how he will fare on the dance floor in Qatar with the strongest challengers being France and Brazil, the defending champions. There are still those who believe that to be considered the greatest footballer of all time, he should have taken home the trophy. But Messi, our fixed point for so long, has already found his own way through the universe; And all that remains is our fear and perhaps our grief at his last flight.