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 reaching it. In Rio, it’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer, staring down from Corcovado Mountain. In Berlin, it is the majestic Fernsehturm, or television tower. In a chaotic world, there is something eternally comforting about these fixed points.
For many football fans, the World Cup is a fixed point. As we navigate through the weeks and months, our joys and our disappointments, the World Cup is always there, never more than four years away, an event that marks the stages of our lives. We first learn about it when we are young and still crave it in our fall and winters. This is perhaps the only thing other than the number of years we can use to measure our age: I’m 43, but it’s almost as important to me that I’ve seen nine World Cups.
As we watch the World Cup, we notice certain patterns that repeat themselves in every tournament. There are teams that excite us at first and then slowly fade away, melting into the ether like romances that weren’t meant to be: these are the “flames of the summer,” like Columbia in 2014. There are teams that aren’t good. It’s enough to win the whole game, but it gives the eventual World Cup winners the toughest leg of the journey: these are the ‘keepers’, like Jorge Sampaoli’s resilient Argentina side, which France had to overcome in the round of 16. In 2018. The team that Sampaoli said were going into the game “with a knife between their teeth” were only beaten after a thrilling duel in which they forced the usually risk-averse France to attack all over the place. That match, widely regarded as the best game of that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappe win a penalty in the first half and score twice in five minutes of the second half. It was also the first time France looked like they could actually win. Then there are still other teams—Senegal in 2002, for example—who turn up far more than expected and go on in exciting fashion to make it all about them, if only for a short while. They are commonly referred to as “dark horses”, but I prefer to call them a term coined by me. Stadium Ryan Hoon, podcast host: “Wedding Matches.”
However, the surest pattern of all is “The Last Dance”. It’s when an elite player — someone whose impact on the game is so significant that it’s almost a monument on its own — prepares to play his final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and possibly unfair measure by which to judge a footballer’s greatness, given that it’s a path where luck plays an unnaturally large role. It means excelling in a series of games played over a month, for which one must first be lucky enough to be fully fit and then have a team around them that complements them in some way. Judging a player’s greatness at the World Cup is as absurd as judging a university student based on a one-hour exam after five years of study.
Yet that is the point Leo Messi has now reached, heading into what he has confirmed will be his last World Cup. With each season he has moved towards the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentinian side: from his early years as a speedy winger to the middle of his career as a full-time player. 10 to his current incarnation as a more patient, central and isolated playmaker. Watching Messi for Argentina now is a bit like realizing with dismay that you’ve reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: you’ve enjoyed the journey, but fear you haven’t enjoyed it enough.
The last time football felt this bitter was when Zinedine Zidane, before the 2006 World Cup, announced that this match would be the last time he graced a football pitch. Then we found ourselves watching every game with a sense of extreme 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 highlights of his career on YouTube, then went for a short walk near my apartment. It’s a little embarrassing to reveal this, but in retrospect, I think I was sad. For years, Zidane’s game was a constant source of escapism and 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 amazing thing for his club or country. .
It was the same with Messi. There have been countless times over the past few years that I’ve taken a short break from my desk to walk around town, and that break soon turned into a 90-minute break from work when I passed a local pub and saw The team was about to start the game. Pep Guardiola told us a long time ago: “Always watch Messi,” because one day we won’t. I may never be able to witness the Northern Lights in person, but watching the famously isolated Messi on all those television screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to that celestial wonder: an effervescent presence hanging over us as unknown to most of us. A space that illuminates excitingly.
As Messi prepares for his last dance, he will do so with perhaps his toughest cast to date, despite Argentina winning the Copa America last year for the first time since 1993. . Part of several very talented national teams – perhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup selection, which included Pablo Aymar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Romain Riquelme – but none were decisive. Here, he can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeeper Amy Martinez, the superb finishing of Lautaro Martinez and Julian Alvarez and the creative genius of Angel Di Maria. Last but not least, he has his loyal lieutenant Rodrigo De Paul, who seems to be on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.
The Copa America victory over hosts Brazil, like the iconic Maracana Stadium, was a double milestone for Messi, who was the man of the tournament. It meant that he was claiming a senior title that was even greater than Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he had to emulate or even surpass – and it also meant that, on one level, he was relieved of a lot of pressure. had found This was the first tournament during which the dynamic changed from Messi carrying the team to Messi carrying the team. Impressive in the early rounds, he wore a tired face towards the end of the final and missed an opportunity to finish the match where he could have scored in the best possible way. Along the way, he had to draw on the strengths of his teammates like never before: and one by one, whether it was Martinez with his penalty shootout heroics against Colombia or Di Maria with his winner against Brazil, they rose to the challenge. Watching him collapse at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be seen as his country’s perennial underdog. Having seen him in the recent friendly in Estonia, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or when he really set the tone against Italy in the Finalsima, we can sense someone with more freedom in the Blues. plays White shirt forever
How he fares on the dance floor in Qatar remains to be seen, with defending champions France and Brazil likely to be the strongest contenders. There are still those who believe that in order to be recognized as the greatest footballer of all time, he should go home with this trophy. Yet Messi, our long-time fixture, has found his way into the cosmos. And all that remains is our awe and perhaps melancholy at his last flight.