Every city has a monument that is its point of reference: a building or landmark that, no matter where you are in the town, you can find your way home just by looking or reaching toward it. In Rio, it’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which gazes down from the Corcovado mountain; in Berlin, it’s the majestic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic universe, there is something forever 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 that we mark the stages of our lives by. We first learn of it in our youth and we’re still yearning for it through our autumns and well into our winters. It’s perhaps the only other thing apart from the number of years we’ve 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.
As we watch the World Cup, we start to notice certain patterns that recur in each tournament. There are teams that excite us at the outset and then gently subside, melting away into the ether like romances that weren’t meant to be: These are the “summer flames,” like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that aren’t good enough to win the whole thing, but will give the eventual World Cup winners their toughest stage of the entire journey: These are “the gatekeepers,” such as the resilient Argentina team coached by Jorge Sampaoli that France had to overcome in the Round of 16 in 2018. That side, which Sampaoli said would go out to play “with a knife between their teeth,” were defeated only after an exhilarating duel in which they forced normally risk-averse France into an all-out attack. That match, widely regarded as the finest at that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappé—who earned a first-half penalty and scored twice in a five-minute second-half span—take his first leap toward greatness. It was also the first time that France looked like they could truly be champions. Then there are still other teams—say, Senegal in 2002—that turn up at the function with far more swagger than most expected, and proceed in thrilling fashion to make it all about them, if only for a little while. They are commonly known as “the dark horses,” but I prefer to call them the phrase offered by my Stadio podcast cohost Ryan Hunn: “the wedding crashers.”
The surest pattern of all, though, 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 their own right—prepares to play their final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and possibly even unfair measure by which we assess a footballer’s greatness, given that it is a path where chance plays an abnormally large role. It means prevailing in a series of games, played over a month, for which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fully 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 on the result of a single one-hour exam after five years of study.
Yet this is the point that Leo Messi has reached now, arriving at a World Cup that he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he has moved toward both the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentina 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, more central, and more withdrawn playmaker. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels a little like realizing with alarm that you have already reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: You enjoyed the journey, but you fear that you may not have savored it enough.
The last time football felt this poignant was when Zinedine Zidane announced, prior to the 2006 World Cup, that this contest would be the last time he graced a football field. Then, we found ourselves watching each game with a heightened sense of jeopardy, knowing that any defeat for France would be terminal for Zidane. The night before the final, which France reached largely due to his brilliance, I spent an evening watching highlights of his career on YouTube, then went for a short walk near my flat. It is a little embarrassing to reveal this, but on reflection, I think that I was grieving. For years, Zidane’s play had been a consistent source of escape, of beauty: No matter how difficult my working week had been, I knew I could tune in on Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one wondrous thing for his club or country.
The same has been true for Messi. There have been countless times in the past few years when I have taken a short break from my desk for a stroll through town, and that break soon turned into a 90-minute abandonment of my work once I passed a 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 get to witness the Northern Lights in person, but watching the famously reclusive Messi on all those television screens is probably the closest thing I will see to that celestial wonder: an effervescent presence hanging above us, as unknowable to most of us as the void that it so thrillingly illuminates.
As Messi prepares for his last dance, he will do so with a supporting cast that is perhaps the most battle-hardened that he has had to date, with Argentina having last year won the Copa América for the first time since 1993. Messi has been part of several immensely gifted national squads—perhaps most notably the World Cup 2006 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 excellence 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 scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.
That Copa América win over hosts Brazil, coming as it did in the iconic Maracanã stadium, was a doubly vital milestone for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant that he claimed a senior title that had been beyond even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he had been burdened to emulate or even somehow exceed—and it also meant that, at some level, he had been liberated from so much pressure. It was the first tournament during which the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Astonishing in the early rounds, he cut an exhausted figure by the end of the final, missing a chance to clinch 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 his penalty shoot-out heroics against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they met the challenge. Watching him collapse at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be seen as the perennial underachiever for his country. Seeing him tear through Estonia in a recent friendly, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or regally decreeing the direction of play against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense someone playing with greater freedom in the 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 as perhaps the other strongest challengers. There are still those who believe that, in order to be regarded as 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 path through the cosmos; and all that is left is our awe and maybe our melancholy at his final flight.