Lionel Messi’s Last Dance – The Ringer

Every city has a monument that is its point of reference: a building or landmark that, no matter where you are in town, you can find your way home just by looking at it or reaching out. In Rio it is the statue of Christ the Redeemer, looking 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 lover, 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 always there, never more than four years away, an event that marks the stages of our lives. We first learn it in our youth and continue to yearn for it through our autumns and well into our winters. This may be the only thing other than the number of years we’ve lived that 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 begin to notice certain patterns that repeat in every tournament. There are teams that excite us at the beginning and then gently subside, disappearing 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 stage of the entire journey: It’s “the gatekeepers,” like the resilient Jorge Sampaoli-coached Argentina team that defeated France in the Round of 16 had to overcome in 2018. This team, who according to Sampaoli would go out to play “with a knife between their teeth”, were only defeated after an exciting duel in which they forced the normally risk-averse France into an all-out attack. That game, widely regarded as the best at that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappé – who earned a first-half penalty and scored twice in a five-minute second half – take his first leap to greatness . It was also the first time that France looked like they could actually be champions. Then there are other teams – say Senegal in 2002 – who arrive at the function with far more oomph than most expected, and excitingly proceed to make it all about them, if only for a short while. . They are commonly known as “the dark horses,” but I prefer to call them the phrase presented by me Stadium podcast co-host Ryan Hunn: “the wedding crashers.”

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However, the surest pattern of all 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 yardstick by which we judge a footballer’s greatness, as it is a path where chance plays an abnormally large role. It means victory in a series of matches, 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 complements them in some way. Judging a player’s greatness by a World Cup is as absurd as judging a university student by the result of a single one-hour exam after five years of study.

Yet that is the point Leo Messi has now reached, arriving at a World Cup he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he has moved into both the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentina team: from his early years as a break-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 bit like realizing with alarm that you’ve already reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: You’ve enjoyed the journey, but you fear you may not have enjoyed it enough not.

The last time football felt this poignant was when Zinedine Zidane announced before the 2006 World Cup that this competition would be the last time he graced a football pitch. Then we found ourselves watching each game with a heightened sense of danger, knowing that any defeat for France would be terminal 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 saddened. For years, Zidane’s game was a consistent source of escape, of beauty: no matter how hard my work week was, I knew I could tune in on Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one great thing for his club or country do

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The same was true for Messi. There have been countless times over the past few years that I’ve taken a short break from my desk for a walk around town, and that break soon turned into a 90-minute departure from work when I stopped by a passed local bar and saw that Messi’s team was about to kick off. 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 witness the Northern Lights in person, but watching the famously reclusive Messi on all those television screens is probably the closest thing I’ll ever see to that celestial wonder: an effervescent presence hanging above us, so unknowable to most of us like the void it so excitingly illuminates.

As Messi prepares for his final dance, he will do so with a supporting cast that may be the toughest he has had to date, with Argentina winning the Copa América for the first time since 1993 last year. part of several extremely gifted national teams – perhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup selection, which included Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Román Riquelme – but none so decisive. Here he can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeeper of Emi Martínez, the excellent 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 when Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.

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That Copa América victory over hosts Brazil came as it did in the iconic Maracanã Stadium was a doubly important milestone for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant that he claimed a senior title even more so than Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he was tasked with emulating or even in some way surpassing – and it also meant that he at a certain level freed from so much pressure. It was the first tournament in which the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to Messi carrying the team. He was stunning in the early rounds and by the end of the final cut an exhausted figure, squandering a chance to clinch the match he would have scored at his peak. Along the way, he had to draw on the strength of his teammates like never before: And one by one, whether it was Martínez with his penalty 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 perpetual underachiever for his country. Watching him tear through Estonia in a recent friendly, scoring all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or setting the tone against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense that someone with greater freedom plays in the blue and white shirt like never 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 challengers. There are still those who believe that to be considered the greatest footballer of all time, he should go home with the trophy. Yet Messi, our fixed point for so long, has already found his own way through the cosmos; and all that remains is our awe and perhaps our melancholy at his last flight.

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