Lionel Messi’s Last Dance – The Ringer

Every city has a monument that is the 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 towards it. In Rio there is the statue of Christ the Redeemer, staring down from Corcovado Mountain; in Berlin it is 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 a football fan, 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 by which we mark the stages of our lives. We learn about it only in our youth, and we still yearn for it through the fall and well into the winters. 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.

Looking at the World Cup, we begin to notice certain patterns that repeat themselves in every tournament. There are teams that excite us at the beginning and then gently fade away, melting into the ether like romances that were not meant to be: These are the “flames of summer”, like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that are not good enough to win the whole thing , but will give the eventual World Cup winners their toughest leg of the entire journey: These are the “gatekeepers”, such as the resilient Jorge Sampaoli-coached Argentina team that France had to overcome in the round of 16 in 2018. The side, which Sampaoli said would go out to play “with a knife between their teeth”, were defeated only after a thrilling duel in which they forced the normally risk-averse France into an all-out attack. That game, widely regarded as the best of that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappé – who was awarded a penalty in the first half and scored twice in five minutes in the second half – take his first leap towards greatness. It was also the first time France looked like they could really become champions. Then there are still other teams – Senegal in 2002, for example – who turn up to the event with far more noise than most expected, and proceed in exciting fashion to make it all about them, if only for a little while. They are often known as “the dark horses”, but I prefer to call them the term offered by mine Stadium podcast co-host Ryan Hunn: “the wedding crashers”.

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The surest pattern of all, however, 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 themselves – prepares to play their final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and possibly even unfair goal by which we judge a footballer’s greatness, given that it is a path where chance plays an abnormally large role. It means winning in a series of games, played over a month, for which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fit and then have a team around them that somehow complements them. Judging a player’s greatness by a World Cup is as absurd as judging a university student by the result of a single hour’s exam after five years of study.

Yet this is the point Leo Messi has reached now, coming to a World Cup that he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he has moved towards both the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentinian team: from his early years as a warp-speed winger to 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 unease that you’ve already reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: you enjoyed the journey, but you fear you may not have enjoyed it enough.

The last time football felt so poignant was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this competition would be the last time he graced a football field. Then we found ourselves watching each game with a heightened sense of danger, knowing that any defeat for France would be unending for Zidane. The night before the final, which France reached mainly because of his brilliance, I spent an evening watching the highlights of his career on YouTube, then went for a short walk near my apartment. It’s a little embarrassing to reveal this, but on reflection, I think I grieved. For years, Zidane’s plays had been a consistent source of escape, of beauty: no matter how hard my work week had been, I knew I could tune in on Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one amazing thing for his club or his country.

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The same has been the case 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 abandonment of my work when I passed a local pub and saw that Messi’s team were in about to start. Pep Guardiola told us this a long time ago: “Always look at Messi,” because one day we won’t be able to. I may never see the Northern Lights in person, but seeing the famously reclusive Messi on all those TV 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 as the void that it lights up so excitingly.

As Messi prepares for his final dance, he will do so in a supporting role that may be his toughest to date, with Argentina last year winning the Copa América for the first time since 1993. Messi has been part of several immensely gifted national team – perhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup 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 prowess 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 faithful lieutenant Rodrigo de Paul, who always seems to be first on the pitch whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opponent.

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That Copa América win over hosts Brazil, coming as it did at the iconic Maracanã stadium, was a doubly important milestone for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant he was claiming a senior title that had been beyond even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he had been pressed to emulate or even surpass – and it also meant that he had, on some level, been freed from so much pressure. It was the first tournament where 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 win the game that he would have scored at his sharpest. Along the way, he had to draw on the strength of his teammates like never before: And one by one, be it Martínez with penalty shootout heroics against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they rose to the challenge. Seeing him collapse at the final whistle, it was clear Messi knew he could no longer be seen as the perennial underachiever for his country. Watching him tear through Estonia in a recent friendly, scoring all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or royally decreeing the direction of play against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense someone who plays with greater freedom 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 perhaps the other strongest contenders. There are still those who believe that he must go home with the trophy to be seen as the greatest footballer of all time. Yet Messi, our fixed point for so long, has already found his own path through the cosmos; and all that remains is our awe and perhaps our melancholy at his last flight.


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