Every city has a landmark 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 at it or heading towards it. In Rio, there is the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which looks out from Mount Corcovado; in Berlin, it’s the majestic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic universe, there is something eternally comforting about these fixed points.
In the existence of many football fans, the World Cup is a fixed point. As we go through the weeks and months, our joys and disappointments, the World Cup is always there, never more than four years away, an event with which we mark the stages of our lives. We first learn about it in our youth and we still crave it through the fall and into winter. It’s probably the only thing other than the number of years we’ve lived that we can use to measure age: I’m 43, but it’s almost as important to me that I’ve witnessed nine World Cups.
As we watch the World Cup, we begin to notice certain patterns that repeat themselves in every tournament. There are teams that excite us at first and then settle down, melting into the ether like romances that weren’t meant to be: These are the “flames of summer,” like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that aren’t good enough to win the all, but it will give the eventual World Cup winners their most difficult phase of the entire journey: These are the “goalkeepers”, such as Jorge Sampaoli’s stable Argentina team, which France had to overcame in the 16th round. in 2018. That team, who Sampaoli said would come out to play “with a knife between their teeth”, were beaten only after a thrilling duel in which they forced the normally vulnerable France into an all-out attack. That match, widely regarded as the best of that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappé – who won a penalty in the first half and scored twice in a five-minute span in the second half – make his debut to greatness. It was also the first time that France looked like they might actually be champions. Then there are still other teams – say, Senegal in 2002 – that turn up with far more than expected and go on thrillingly to make it all about them, if only for a little while. They are commonly known as “dark horses”, but I prefer to call them the phrase provided by myself Stadium podcast host Ryan Hunn: “The crashers wedding.”
However, the surest pattern of all is the “last dance.” This is when an elite player – someone whose impact 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 perhaps unfair measure by which to measure a footballer’s greatness, given that it is a path where chance plays an abnormally large role. It means dominating a series of games, played over the course of a month, for which the individual must first be fortunate enough to be fully fit and then have a team around him that somehow complements them. Judging a player’s greatness by one World Cup is as absurd as judging a university student on the result of a single one-hour exam after five years of study.
However, that is the point Leo Messi has now reached, reaching a World Cup he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he has moved towards the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentine side: from his early years as a speedy winger to his mid-career career as a no. 10 in his current incarnation as a more patient, central and withdrawn player. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels like realizing with alarm that you’ve already reached the last glass of the best bottle of red wine: You’ve enjoyed the ride, but you fear you may not have savored it enough.
The last time football felt this poignant was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this competition would be the last time he graced a football pitch. Afterwards, we found ourselves watching each match with a heightened sense of danger, knowing that any defeat for France would be the end for Zidane. The night before the final, which France reached largely because of his brilliance, I spent an evening watching his career highlights on YouTube, then went for a short walk near my apartment. It’s a little embarrassing to find out, but on reflection, I think I was sad. For years, Zidane’s game had been a constant source of escapism, beauty: No matter how hard my work week had been, I knew I could tune in on a Saturday or Sunday to watch him do at least one great thing about his club or country. .
The same thing happened to 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 quickly turned into a 90-minute abandonment of my work after passing a local pub and seeing that Messi’s team was about to start. Pep Guardiola told us this a long time ago: “Always watch Messi”, because one day we won’t be able to. I may never get to witness the Northern Lights in person, but watching the famous Messi isolated on all those TV screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to that celestial wonder: a fiery presence that hangs over us, so as unknown to most of us as the emptiness that illuminates it so excitingly.
As Messi prepares for his final leap, he will do so with a supporting cast that is perhaps his toughest battle to date, with Argentina last year winning the Copa América for the first time since 1993. Messi has been part of several national teams with outstanding talent – perhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup squad, 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 bold and charismatic goalkeeping of Emi Martínez, the exceptional 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 the first on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.
The Copa America victory over hosts Brazil, coming as it did at the iconic Maracanã stadium, was a doubly vital milestone for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant he claimed a senior title that had been beyond even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he was tasked with emulating or even surpassing – and it also meant that, on some level, he was freed from so much pressure. It was the first tournament during which the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Stunning in the early rounds, he cut an exhausted figure by the end of the final, missing a chance to close out the match he would have scored the maximum. Along the way, he had to draw out the strength of his teammates like never before: And one by one, whether it was Martínez with his penalty heroics against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they rose to the challenge. Seeing him go down at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be seen as the eternal underachiever for his country. Watching him tear up against Estonia in a recent friendly, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or really dictate the direction of the game against Italy in the Finalissima, we can sense someone who plays with more linen in blue-and- white shirt than ever before.
How he will fare on the dance floor in Qatar remains to be seen, with defending champions France and Brazil the other strongest challengers. There are still those who believe that to be considered the greatest footballer of all time, he must go home with the trophy. However, Messi, our fixed point for so long, has already found his way through the cosmos; and all that remains is our fear and perhaps our melancholy at his last flight.