There are very few moments in world history that can unite entire generations in awe. At the head of that very short list, you will find the moon landing. A couple of lines further down, but still on the same page, you will see an athletic feat of rare brilliance: say, Usain Bolt breaking the sound barrier in the Olympic 100-meter final. These are the times when human civilization comes together and says, its voice brimming with wonder and maybe a little fear, “My goodness, we did not think that our kind was capable of this. Right before our very eyes, our species has evolved.” The evolution moment I remember most clearly in my lifetime came in an airport lounge a quarter of a century ago, as I waited for a flight back to London from Boston. There, standing at the back of a crowd of mainly white men, I saw them gawp silently up at a small television screen, their faces glazed with a sort of religious euphoria. On that screen was a tall young man striding forward, his limbs thin and taut, pumping his fist at the air, as if he were punching away all notion of what his sport thought possible. The day was April 13, 1997, and the man was Tiger Woods. At the age of just 21 years old, he was utterly dominating one of the most revered tournaments in world golf: the Masters at Augusta, a club that had only seven years prior admitted its first Black member. Woods, before a record television audience in the United States, won the Masters by the astonishing margin of 12 shots, a mark that still stands. That day, golf had forever evolved.
All sports must evolve, and nothing thrills us more than the emergence of a new star. The World Cup is essential in this regard because it offers an instant ascent to greatness like no other. Just four years ago, Kylian Mbappé was known mostly to those who had seen him star for Monaco in the UEFA Champions League, but he was not a global phenomenon. That all changed in Russia, where his four goals helped France to victory; today, he has the highest salary of any footballer in the world. While any new star would have to do extraordinary things in Qatar to match Mbappé’s rise, the one thing we can guarantee is that we will see someone choose this month to thrill the entire planet for the first time.
New stars must announce themselves with an act that is at least romantic, if not decisive: For full impact, it must be both. In the merely romantic category, we have Michael Owen’s spectacular sprint and rising drive in England’s eventual loss to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. In both camps, we have Roberto Baggio’s bewilderingly graceful dribble and finish in Italy’s 2-0 win against Czechoslovakia in 1990, when Baggio employed a body swerve so beguiling that the nearest defender, despite standing only 2 meters away, lost sight of him entirely.
The most intriguing thing is what the new star goes on to do next, because flourishing over the course of a few weeks at the World Cup is a notoriously unpredictable indicator of how the rest of their career will pan out. Owen went on to claim the Ballon d’Or as Europe’s best footballer before multiple injuries stole his speed forever, and Baggio went on to be named world and European player of the year. Yet James Rodríguez, scorer of the goal of the tournament in 2014 and winner of the World Cup Golden Boot, enjoyed only intermittent success in the following seasons, with one of the low points being his failure to make it off the bench in the final of the 2015-16 Champions League.
The most poignant new star of all is Mario Götze, the man who scored the winning goal for Germany in the 2014 World Cup final at the age of just 22. From a distance, Götze’s career almost seems like a morality tale for what happens when the football gods give you too much too soon: Since then, his form subsided from fairly good to average, and though he has earned several medals and plenty of money he has not become the player his early talent promised. Yet to look more closely is to understand that we have no right to expect years of consistent brilliance from anyone on the world stage. The pressure is simply too severe; the likelihood of significant injuries or other ailments (in Götze’s case, a rare muscular disorder) is simply too great. If anything, the new stars remind us of just how fragile the conditions for continued excellence actually are. Just as novelists may have only one The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird in them, so footballers may have only one majestic campaign where they can say: “Look, that is when I enthralled the whole world.” To which they may quickly add: “And who gets to do that, even once?”
In Götze’s case, the ending is a happy one, as he returns to the World Cup with his first inclusion in a Germany squad in five years. He is a sort of footballing Odysseus, having finally found his way home to the biggest stage of all after wandering among some slightly smaller islands of the global game. However many minutes he plays in Qatar, he will have a front-row seat for what will hopefully be football’s next Evolution Moment: the first time we see the new Owen or Mbappé shatter the parameters of football as we know it, scorching on through its borders to a future of unimaginable joy.