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A Last Dance World Cup for Soccer’s Biggest Stars

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Luka Modric are among the ageless stars hoping to reach the sport’s pinnacle in Qatar

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

An amazing thing happens when Lionel Messi walks into a press conference filled with hundreds of journalists. A collective hush envelopes the room. Jaded professionals who believe themselves to be above any kind of idolatry, accustomed as they are to being in the vicinity of global superstars, sit up straight and grow almost giddy. Phones rise high, of course, like teenagers spotting a pop star, from the moment he walks into the room until he leaves it. That used to be a no-no for media.

On this day, Messi’s arrival came an hour later than anticipated because he was busy celebrating Argentina’s first group stage win over Mexico, following a shock upset by Saudi Arabia in their opener.

“Is he ever going to come?” one reporter had just asked another quietly.

“Apparently he’s coming.”

“Yes, he’s coming,” said a third. “He’s just finishing another interview.”

Messi rewarded our patience by saying a few uncharacteristically interesting things—to be fair, later on in his career, the boy once believed to be a mute by his teammates in the FC Barcelona youth academy has mastered motivational speaking.

“We needed this euphoria,” Messi proclaims. “The days were very long [after the Saudi loss] and we were eager to have the chance to turn it around. It was a critical game. This was a weight off our shoulders and now we have peace of mind.”

He left the room after just two questions, as commanded by FIFA for some reason. Phones up again. A reporter scurried over for a selfie. Huge no-no.

For more than an hour, Messi loafed about the field at the Lusail Iconic Stadium in a disappointingly attritional game against Mexico. The stadium, packed with almost 89,000 vocal Mexicans and hopping Argentines, roared whenever Messi touched the ball. But he rarely bestirred himself to get involved in the savagery of two teams kicking lumps out of one another, to pour out some of that lightning he managed to bottle as a teenager. At 35, he needed to pick his moments. So he lurked throughout much of the game until Mexico left him with an ill-advised pocket of space outside of the box, received the ball from Ángel Di María—who described his own pass as “a turd”—and threaded his long, low shot through several needles, between the defenders closing him down, between goalkeeper Memo Ochoa and the far post. The goal sent Argentina fans into raptures as far away as Bangladesh. Messi looked like he was choking back tears in the celebration. He had done virtually nothing all game, but later on he also teed up Enzo Fernández for a goal from a short corner. 2-0: Messi goal; Messi assist.

The hurt from the Saudi game—which he said left them “dead”—was healed.

“You know what happened,” Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni explained. “Number 10 scored the goal and he did what he does best. Of course, he was supported by all the other players.”

“Messi should enjoy this World Cup,” Scaloni went on. “All the fans should enjoy seeing him play. We don’t just have great players, we have Leo.”

Scaloni looked relieved. The whole team looked relieved as the game ended. Relief for Messi, that he had come through once more. For his teammates, that they hadn’t let Him down. At His last World Cup. At His final chance to win the one trophy that has thus far eluded Him.

The facades of some of the skyscrapers along Doha’s bay are adorned with enormous wrappers, dozens of stories tall, depicting some of the World Cup’s biggest stars. Messi is up there, likely feeling taller than ever. So are Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Brazilian forward Neymar, Uruguay striker Luis Suárez, Croatia’s Luka Modric, Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, and a few others (Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, conspicuously, is missing).

You can’t help but notice that most of them are veterans, deep into their 30s and almost certainly at their last World Cup. It’s unlikely we’ll see them at the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

The World Cup is already over for France’s Karim Benzema, reigning Ballon d’Or holder as the planet’s best player, who was omitted from France’s final squad with an injury. Even Neymar, at a mere 30, might be at his last World Cup, given his extensive injury history. And this is surely his best chance of finally winning the thing, acting as the fulcrum of what might well be the best Brazil team in two decades.

A sense that this is a last dance, of sorts, for an entire generation of superstars has taken hold of this World Cup.

So over the course of 10 days, I went on a bit of a tour of the monuments here in Qatar. I’ve watched all the aging icons—Messi, Neymar, Modric, Suárez, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Gareth Bale, the entire Belgium team, likely seeing them in person for the last time, saying goodbye.

The tournament seems entirely aware that it doubles as a farewell tour for the era-defining names who have dominated and remade the sport over the last decade. It has genuflected humbly to soccer’s famous faces, even though they are mostly no longer its best players. Bale was named man of the match against the United States after having done virtually nothing other than earn and convert a savvy penalty. Kevin De Bruyne was surprised by his own prize after Belgium’s alarmingly difficult 1-0 win over Canada. “I don’t think I played a great game, I don’t know why I have got the trophy,” spoke De Bruyne, who can always be counted on to say the quiet part out loud. “Maybe it’s because of the name.”

After Ronaldo was awarded a cotton-soft penalty against Ghana, the latter team’s coach derided the call as “a special gift from the referee.” “Why?” he wondered with reason. “Because it’s Ronaldo or something?”

Modric was spared several clear yellow cards against Morocco. And when Neymar took off his cleat and sock before heading down the player tunnel after his lackluster appearance for Brazil in its 2-0 opening win over Serbia—which was an extremely Neymar move, making sure everyone could see—the conversation immediately shifted. Rather than dwell on the fact that he had lost the ball 18 times in the first half alone and had mostly just ferried the ball pointlessly from one flank to another, all the talk was about when he might return from the injury. The following day, Richarlison’s marvelous goal had been largely forgotten and, at Brazil manager Tite’s next press conference, every question he was asked concerned Neymar. Neymar, after all, had been everywhere in this World Cup—in the TV ads, on the billboards; omnipresent, owing to his contract with Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain.

It all redounds to the apparent need for Neymar to win a World Cup to put the crowning achievement on his career. It’s the latest salvo in a stupid and intractable argument about legacy, about whose is secure and whose isn’t. Who belongs in the pantheon of greats and who, absent a World Cup trophy, does not. Ronaldo and Messi haven’t won a World Cup either, but they have lifted the Euro and the Copa América, respectively. Neymar has merely won the Olympics. As such, he doesn’t belong. Or something.

What’s more interesting is the disarming sincerity these final World Cups have yielded.

Against Canada, Belgium fielded a starting lineup with an average age of 29.9. Six of its starters were over 30. And the win flattered the Belgians, who had been outshot 22-9 and out-expected-goaled 2.57-0.76 by a team that had not been to the World Cup since 1986 and was resoundingly outplayed by Croatia a few days later. Canada had been the better team by far. Belgian blushes were spared by Thibaut Courtois’s save on an Alphonso Davies penalty.

Then, before Belgium played Morocco, an interview with De Bruyne appeared in The Guardian in which he said Belgium had “no chance, we’re too old” to win the World Cup. “I think our chance was 2018,” De Bruyne added. “We have a good team, but it is aging. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”

He was probably right. In its next game, Belgium lost to Morocco 2-0 while De Bruyne completed a puny 14 passes in the first half. Belgium’s chief creator, in fact, created just one chance all game. A 0-0 stalemate with Croatia sent the Belgians home. They came in third at the 2018 World Cup. Now another last dancer, Romelu Lukaku, converted none of his handful of fat second-half chances, which added up to a whipping 1.7 expected goals, per

Lewandowski was booed by the overwhelmingly Mexican crowd on his every touch for Poland. This was curious inasmuch as Lewandowski had never scored in a World Cup before. The 34-year-old FC Barcelona striker worked hard for his team. And in minute 54, Héctor Moreno helped himself to a fistful of Lewandowski’s shirt as the Pole tried to bull his way through El Tri’s back line, earning him a penalty through the video assistant referee. But Lewandowski missed the penalty and the game ended in a scoreless stalemate.

Poland manager Czesław Michniewicz felt an urge to defend his misfiring star. “When Robert misses, there is always the question why,” he said after the game. “Yesterday, at the training when there were no journalists, he trained penalties and he never missed. Such things happen. Great players miss their penalties at the World Cup, it’s football. Of course, it’s a pity about Robert, I know how much he wanted to score a goal at the World Cup. He was very emotional about it.”

Four days later, Lewandowski assisted on a goal and finally bagged one himself against Saudi Arabia, pouncing on a defensive mistake. He collapsed into the turf and sobbed. As it turned out, his contributions in that game would see Poland through to the knockout stage in spite of a 2-0 loss to Argentina in its group stage finale.

But some teams appear to be something like captives of their legends. Uruguay isn’t nearly as dynamic as it might be for fielding 35-year-olds Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. And even though the 37-year-old Portuguese’s 118 international goals are a world record for men, there is a coherent argument to be made that Portugal’s attack would function better without Ronaldo in it. He doesn’t offer the team a reference point or the outlet it needs at the top of its formation. And he often drifts wide to find space, leaving the team without a striker at all. But then he no longer has the legs to play as a winger either. He is a shadow of the explosive uber-athlete he once was. These days, he often just seems to bung up the works. And even his generational finishing is suspect now. He has been missing straightforward chances all tournament. And to make things worse, Ghana’s Osman Bukari performed Ronaldo’s signature jumping “siuuu” celebration, much to Ronaldo’s annoyance.

Lukaku’s profligacy sent Croatia, which lost the 2018 final to France in Russia, into the knockout rounds. Croatia’s only win, and goals, came in a 4-1 stroll past Canada. It was hard not to notice that the 37-year-old Modric mostly let fellow midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic do the running. Modric just kind of hung out, usually straggling a good 20 yards behind the breakaways, calling for the ball but seldom getting it. He remains one of the game’s preeminent dot connectors but he mostly functions as a kind of luxury item now. He forged only a few chances that night, and all through the group stage. He wasn’t involved in any of the goals. But he was there and it was nice to see him, like a pleasant and unobtrusive guest at a party—although he did get a yellow card for a scuffle with Kamal Miller before being substituted off.

Portugal fans started doing the “siuuu” celebration on the metro ride to the Lusail Iconic Stadium. Plenty of them didn’t look particularly Portuguese. The Ronaldo effect. They cheered rapturously when the big screens showed Ronaldo arriving at the stadium, winking to the camera, of course—as if he could hear them from the other end of the feed.

Ronaldo didn’t do much against Uruguay. But a few stepovers were enough to make the crowd lose it, even if he accomplished nothing with them. It was like an old singer starting in on a classic from decades ago, even though everyone knows they can’t carry the tune anymore. In minute 18, he lined up behind a free kick in his wide stance, another signature Ronaldo thing. It’s one of the many ways he has made himself recognizable, like his stinted gait, or walking with such an unnaturally straight posture that you always know it’s him, even from the nosebleeds. He put that shot into the wall, making it 53 direct free kicks in a Portugal jersey that have returned just a single goal.

After half-time, Ronaldo didn’t quite manage to get his head onto Bruno Fernandes’s cross. He was a step and a few inches short. But he created enough of a distraction that goalkeeper Sergio Rochet let the ball skip into the net at his far post. The game’s opening goal. Ronaldo ran off and celebrated as if the goal were his anyway, although the record would be corrected. When he was subbed off during minute 82, Ronaldo was given a standing ovation.

After the game, in the mixed zone—where reporters try, and mostly fail, to interview disinterested players—hundreds more journalists waited anxiously. One by one, the Portugal players ambled through. But not the player everybody wanted to catch a glimpse of. When a man from the Portuguese federation announced that the team bus left and no more players were coming—implying that Ronaldo had left through some other passage, a special exit reserved just for him—most of the journalists left. They had probably hoped for a similar scene to what happened a few days earlier, when Ronaldo strode through like the cock of the walk. He didn’t answer any questions as he walked through the long room, snaking through the low fencing. Signs reading “NO PICTURES; NO VIDEO; NO SELFIES” were affixed all over the walls. A phalanx of reporters took selfies as Ronaldo walked by anyway. A few even got him to sign autographs.

After all, when were they going to get another chance to ask him?

Leander Schaerlaeckens is covering the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, his third, for The Ringer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.