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 out. In Rio, it is the statue of Christ the Redeemer, looking down from Mount Corcovado; in Berlin, it is the magnificent 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 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 to mark the stages of our lives. We first learn about it in our youth and still yearn for it during the fall and deep into winter. This is perhaps the only thing, apart from the number of years we have lived, by which we can measure our age: I am 43 years old, 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 repeat themselves in every tournament. There are teams that blow us away at the start and then fade slightly, melting into the ether like romances that weren’t meant to be: these are the “flames of the summer”, like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that aren’t good enough to win the whole thing, but they will possibly give the World Cup winners the toughest stage of the whole journey: these are the “gatekeepers”, such as the resilient Argentina side under coach Jorge Sampaoli that France had to overcome in the round of 16 in 2018. That side, which Sampaoli said would come out to play “with a knife between her teeth”, she was defeated only after an exciting duel in which she forced France, normally risk-averse, into an all-out attack. In what many consider the best of that World Cup, Kylian Mbappé — who earned a penalty in the first half and scored twice in the space of five minutes in the second half — took his first step toward greatness. It was also the first time that France looked like they might actually be champions. Then there are other teams—Senegal 2002, say—that show up to the festivities with far more swagger than most expected, and proceed in exciting fashion 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 term offered by mine Stadium Podcast co-host Ryan Hunn: “wedding crashers.”
However, the safest pattern of all is the “last dance”. Then an elite player—someone whose influence on the game is so significant as to be almost a monument in itself—prepares to play his final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange, and perhaps even unfair, yardstick by which we judge a footballer’s greatness, given that it is a path in which chance plays an abnormally large role. This means winning a series of matches, played over the course of a month, for which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fully fit, and then have a team around him that complements him in some way. Judging a player’s greatness by the World Cup is as absurd as judging a student based on the results of a one-hour exam after five years of study.
Yet this is the point Leo Messi has now reached, arriving at what he has confirmed will be his last World Cup. With each season he moved towards the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentinian 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, central and withdrawn playmaker. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels a bit like the startling realization that you’ve reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: you’ve enjoyed the journey, but you fear that maybe you haven’t enjoyed it enough.
The last time football was this moving was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this competition would be the last time he graced the football field. We then found ourselves watching each game 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 thanks to his brilliance, I spent the evening watching highlights of his career on YouTube, then went for a short walk near my apartment. I’m a little embarrassed to reveal this, but on reflection, I think I was grieving. For years, Zidane’s game was a consistent source of escape, of beauty: no matter how hard my work week was, I knew I could tune in on a Saturday or Sunday and see him do at least one miraculous 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 and walked around the city, and that break soon turned into a 90-minute layoff from work when I passed the local pub and saw that Messi’s team was about to kick off. Pep Guardiola told us this a long time ago: “Always watch Messi”, because one day we won’t be able to. I may never be able to witness the Northern Lights in person, but seeing the famously reclusive Messi on all those television screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to seeing that celestial wonder: a sparkling presence hanging above us, as unrecognizable to most of us as the void it illuminates so thrillingly.
As Messi prepares for his final dance, he will do so with a supporting cast that may be the strongest he has ever had, with Argentina last year winning the Copa América for the first time since 1993. Messi has been part of several extremely talented national teams—perhaps the most notable the 2006 World Cup squad, which included Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Román Riquelme—but none were as decisive. Here he can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeeper Emio Martínez, the outstanding finishing of Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez and the creative genius of Ángel Di Maria. Last but not least, he has his loyal lieutenant Rodrigo de Paulo, who is always the first on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.
That Copa América victory over hosts Brazil, which took place at the iconic Maracanã Stadium, was a doubly important milestone for Messi, who was named player of the tournament. It meant he had a claim to a senior title that surpassed even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he was tasked with emulating or even somehow surpassing – 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. Surprising in the early rounds, he was exhausted by the end of the final, missing the opportunity to score a match that he would have given in the strongest way. Along the way, he had to rely on the strength of his teammates like never before: And one by one, whether it was Martínez with his heroic penalty shootout against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they rose to the challenge. Watching him go down at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be considered a failed player for his country. Watching him demolish Estonia in a recent friendly, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or royally deciding the direction of the game against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense someone playing with more freedom in blue-and- white shirt than ever before.
How they fare on the dance floor in Qatar remains to be seen, with defending champions France and Brazil perhaps the other strongest challengers. There are still those who believe that in order 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 awe and perhaps our melancholy before his last flight.