The literary critic Edward Said coined the phrase Late style To describe the final work of a composer or writer – when the decay of the body cannot help but inform artistry, when creativity is infused with the bumps, bruises and wisdom of an almost fully lived life.
In soccer years, 35 makes the Argentine striker Lionel Messi a true geriatric. And the World Cup was his final opus, his version of Beethoven’s last string quartets or Monet’s Lily Ponds. And what makes the exciting triumph of Argentina something to savor is how the victory was both the culmination of his career and the embodiment of a late style, a performance that had the melancholy feeling of an ending.
At the start of the tournament, the pundits agreed on a story line. The two defining figures of the era – Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo – have won every prize in the game except for the final. Qatar represented their last chance to fill the gap, to lift a trophy seen as essential for staking a claim to the best that ever played.
Ronaldo, 37, fought because he could not adapt to his physical decline. He insisted on playing like 10 years younger. By doing what was necessary, he became redundant. And in his last game, a late defeat to Morocco, he came off the bench, made a few contributions, and then left the field in tears – without shaking hands with his opponents or comforting his slain colleagues. It was a pathetic way to exit, fitting for a useless career.
This is the counterpoint to Messi’s victory. Without the legs to guide him, Messi economized his movements. Instead of pretending to be a young man, he played like an old man. He got through by playing, saving himself for the moments he could understand. He showed a remarkable awareness of how he might be able to untangle his dwindling bodily self, how he had to make choices about when to give himself up completely.
For most of his career, Messi has profited by dropping back into the midfield, pulling defenders out of position, creating space for his teammates to exploit. When he touches the ball, he panics defenders who can’t be sure if he would run for them or if he would exploit his passing ability to switch the attack or to pick a goal rushing the box.
That particular element of surprise no longer exists, because his speed does not exist. His contributions in the tournament relied largely on his accuracy – flicks, deception, the drop of his shoulder and the swivel of his hips. That was the moment he humiliated 20-year-old Croatian defender Joško Gvardiol by spinning around him and then serving the ball into a surging Julián Álvarez. Or the no-look pass that tore through the Dutch defence. The trickery was not only the product of natural gifts but also the accumulated wisdom of a career.
Unlike Ronaldo, Messi has grown into a different kind of leader. As a teenager in Barcelona who took growth hormones to become physically fit for the elite game, he was known as el mudo, the dumb one. His introversion was a strange contrast to his moments of flamboyance in games.
In Qatar 2022, it was exceptional to see how far he has traveled as a man. There were moments on the field where he played the bastard, fouling brutally and complaining unattractively. But he also adopted a leadership style that suited him. He took responsibility for his team and never acted as if he transcended his team. And his leadership was, in a sense, a form of healing.
To borrow another theme from Edward Said, Messi lived a life of exile – self-imposed and lucrative, of course. But playing abroad, he always seemed a bit caught in the middle: unsure of his connection to his motherland, estranged from his adopted country. home He was both an icon to his countrymen and an outsider, a condition made worse by the fact that he had not won the biggest trophy of them all for his country. His quest for a World Cup was possibly a quest to mend his relationship with Argentina.
When I watched Messi’s last game in the World Cup, I was, of course, swept up in one of the greatest matches ever played. But I also found myself grateful to someone who taught by his example – who showed, in a world that fetishizes youth, why the fun style is quite often the greatest.