Every city has a monument that is its point of reference: a building or landmark that, no matter where you are in the city, you can find your way home just by looking or reaching to it. In Rio, it is the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which looks down from the Corcovado mountain; In Berlin, there is the majestic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic universe, there is something always comforting about these fixed points.
In the existence of many football fans, the World Cup is such a fixed point. As we make our way through our weeks and months, our joys and disappointments, the World Cup is just always there, never more than four years away, an event that marks the stages of our lives. We learn about it first in our youth and we still yearn for it in our autumn and in our winter. It is perhaps the only thing other than the number of years we have lived that we can use to measure our age: I am 43, but it is almost as important to me that I have witnessed nine World Cups.
As we watch the World Cup, we begin to notice certain patterns that recur in every tournament. There are teams that excite us at the beginning and then gently decline, melting away into the ether like romances that were not meant to be: these are the “summer flames,” like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that are not good. Enough to win the whole thing, but will give the eventual winners of the World Cup their toughest stage of the entire journey: these are “the gatekeepers,” such as the resilient Argentina team coached by Jorge Sampaoli that France has to overcome in the round of 16 in 2018. The side, who Sampaoli said will go out playing “with a knife between their teeth”, were defeated only after a thrilling duel in which they forced normally risk-averse France into an all-out Attack. In this game, widely regarded as the best of the World Cup, Kylian Mbappé – who earned a first-half penalty and scored twice in a five-minute second half – took his first leap to greatness. It was also the first time that France looked like they could truly be champions. Then there are still other teams – say, Senegal in 2002 – who turn up at the function with far more swagger than most expected, and proceed in thrilling fashion to make it all about them, if only for a little while. They are commonly known as “the dark horses,” but I prefer to call them the phrase offered by Maine Stadium Podcast cohost Ryan Hunn: “The Wedding Crashers.”
The surest pattern of all, though, is “The Last Dance.” This is when an elite player – someone whose influence on the game is so significant that they are almost a monument in their own right – prepares to play their final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and possibly even unfair measure by which we assess a footballer’s greatness, because it is a way where chance plays an abnormally large role. It means prevailing in a series of games, played over a month, for which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fully fit and then have a team around them that somehow complements them. To judge the greatness of a player by a World Cup is as absurd as to judge a university student on the result of a one-hour exam after five years of study.
However, this is the point that Leo Messi has now reached, arriving at a World Cup that he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he has moved to both the tactical and spiritual heart of the Argentine team: from his early years as a warp-speed winger to his mid-career as an all-action no. 10 to his current incarnation as a more patient, more central and more withdrawn playmaker. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels a bit like realizing with dread that you’ve reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: you’ve enjoyed the journey, but you fear you may not have had enough.
The last time football felt this sharp was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this contest would be the last time he graced a football field. Afterwards, we found ourselves watching each game with a heightened sense of menace, knowing that any defeat for France would be terminal for Zidane. The night before the final, which France reached largely due to his brilliance, I spent an evening watching highlights of his career on YouTube, and then went for a short walk near my apartment. It is a little embarrassing to discover this, but on reflection, I think that I was sad. For years, Zidane’s play was a consistent source of escape, of beauty: no matter how hard my work week was, I knew I could tune in on Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one wonderful thing for his club or Country.
The same was true for Messi. There have been countless times over the past few years when I’ve taken a short break from my desk for a walk around town, and that break soon turned into a 90-minute layoff from my job once I passed a local pub and saw that Messi Team was about to kick off. Pep Guardiola told us a long time ago: “Always watch Messi,” because one day we won’t be able to. I may never witness the Northern Lights in person, but watching the famously reclusive Messi on all the TV screens is probably the closest thing I’ll see to the celestial wonder: an immense presence hanging above us, as unknown to most of us as The void that it so thrillingly illuminated.
As Messi prepares for his last dance, he will do so with a supporting cast that is perhaps the most battle-hardened he has had to date, with Argentina last year winning the Copa America for the first time since 1993. Part of Some immensely talented national squads – perhaps most notably the World Cup 2006 selection, which included Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Román Riquelme – but none as decisive. Here, he can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeeping of Emi Martínez, the outstanding finishing of Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez and the creative genius of Ángel Di María. Last but not least, he has his loyal lieutenant Rodrigo de Paul, who always seems to be first on the scene when Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.
The Copa América victory over hosts Brazil, held at the iconic Maracanã Stadium, was a doubly vital milestone for Messi, who was named the player of the tournament. It meant he claimed a senior title that was beyond even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he was burdened to emulate or even surpass – and it also meant that, on some level, he was relieved of so much pressure. . It was the first tournament during which the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Astonishing in the early rounds, he cut an exhausted figure at the end of the final, missing a chance to climb the game he would have scored at his sharpest. In this way, he had to draw on the strength of his teammates like never before: and one by one, be it Martínez with his penalty shooting heroics against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they met the challenge. Watching him collapse at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be seen as the perennial underachiever for his country. When he saw him go through Estonia in a recent friendly, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 victory, or Rivalli decree the direction of play against Italy in the finalisma, we could feel someone playing with greater freedom In the blue-and-white shirt as ever before.
How he will fare on the dance floor in Qatar remains to be seen, with defending champions France and Brazil as perhaps the other strongest challengers. There are still those who believe that in order for him to be considered the greatest footballer of all time, he must go home with the trophy. Yet Messi, our fixed point for so long, has already found his own way through the cosmos; And all that remains is our reverence and perhaps our melancholy at his final flight.