Lionel Messi’s Last Dance – The Ringer

Every city has a monument that is its reference point: a prominent building or landmark, no matter where you are in the city, you can find your way home just by looking at or reaching it. In Rio, it’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer, gazing from Mount Corcovado; In Berlin, it’s the majestic Fernsehturm, or TV tower. In an increasingly chaotic world, there is something eternally comforting about these fixed points.

In the presence of many football fans, the World Cup is a fixed point. As we wind our way through our weeks and months, our joys and our disappointments, the World Cup is always there, no more than four years apart, and it’s an event we celebrate in the stages of our lives. We first learn it in our youth and still crave it through our fall and into the winter seasons. It’s probably the only thing other than the number of years we’ve lived that we can use to gauge our age: I’m 43, but it’s important to me to witness nine World Cups.

As we watch the World Cup, we are beginning to notice certain patterns recurring in every tournament. There are teams that get us excited at first and then cool off gently, melting into the ether like romance that wasn’t meant to be: these are the “tongues of summer”, like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that aren’t good enough to win everything, but it will give the winners in The World Cup finals are their most difficult stage of the entire journey: these are the “gatekeepers”, like the resilient Argentina side coached by Jorge Sampaoli that France had to beat in the Round of 16. In 2018. This side, who Sampaoli said would go out to play “with a knife between his teeth,” were only defeated after a joyous duel in which they forced the usually risk-averse France to launch an all-out offensive. That match, widely regarded as the best of that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappe – who earned a first-half penalty and scored two goals within five minutes of the second half – making his first leap to greatness. It was also the first time that France looked like they could truly be a champion. Then there are still other teams – for example, Senegal in 2002 – who show up to the party with a lot more bravado than expected, and go on in a sexy way to make it all about them, if only for a while. They are usually known as “black horses”, but I prefer to call them by the phrase you introduced the stadium Ryan Hoon, co-host of the podcast: “Wedding Crashers.”

However, the surest pattern of all is “The Last Dance”. This happens when an elite player – someone who has such an influence on the game that it is almost a monument in and of itself – prepares to play his final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and perhaps unfair procedure by which we can assess the greatness of a footballer, given that it is a path in which chance plays an unnaturally large role. This means winning a series of games, played over the course of a month, in which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fully fit and then have a team around him that somehow completes it. Judging a player’s greatness by a World Cup is as ridiculous as judging a college student based on the result of a single one-hour exam after five years of study.

But that is the point Leo Messi has now reached, reaching the World Cup which he assured would be his last. With each season, he’s headed toward the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentina team: from his early years as a fast-paced winger to the middle of his career as a No. 10 to his current incarnation as a more impatient, more centralized, and more withdrawn playmaker. Messi’s watching Argentina now is a bit like anxiously realizing that you’ve already reached your last glass of your best bottle of red wine: you enjoyed the trip, but you fear you may not have enjoyed it enough.

The last time football felt this effect was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this competition would be the last time he would oversee a football field. After that, we found ourselves watching each match with an increased sense of danger, knowing that any defeat for France would be the end for Zidane. The night before the final, which France reached in large part 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 upon reflection, I think I was sad. For years, Zidane’s play has been a constant source of escape and beauty: No matter how hard my work week was, I knew I could listen to him on Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one wondrous thing for his club or country.

The same goes for Messi. There have been countless times in the past few years when I’ve taken a short break from my desk for a walk across town, and that break quickly turned into a 90-minute quit my job as soon as I walked past a local bar and saw that Macy’s. The team was about to launch. Pep Guardiola told us this a long time ago: ‘Always watch Messi’, because one day we won’t be able to. I may never watch the aurora borealis in person, but watching the famous reclusive Messi on all those TV screens is probably the closest thing I’ll ever see to that celestial marvel: a sparkling presence hanging above us, unknown to most of us as the emptiness that illuminates so dramatically.

As Messi prepares for his last dance, he will do so with perhaps the most hardcore support staff in the fight to date, as last year Argentina won the Copa Am̩rica for the first time since 1993. Part of many highly talented national teams Рperhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup selection, which It included Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernan Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Roman Riquelme Рbut nothing decisive. Here, he can count on the defensive superiority of Christian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeepers of Aimee Martinez, the brilliant finishing of Lautaro Martinez and Julian Alvarez, and the creative genius of Angel Di Maria. Last but not least, he has his loyal lieutenant Rodrigo de Paul, who always seems to be the first to appear on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.

The Copa America victory over hosts Brazil, as happened at the famous Maracana, was a doubly important event for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. This meant that he claimed a major title that was beyond even Diego Maradona, the man who had been tasked with imitating legend or even surpassing him in some way – which also meant, on some level, that he was freed from a lot of pressure. It was the first tournament where the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Stunning in the first rounds, he cut an exhausted number by the end of the final, missing a chance to finish the match he would have been at his best. Along the way, he had to rely on the strength of his teammates like never before: and one by one, whether it was Martinez with his penalty shootout championships against Colombia or Di Maria with his victory over Brazil, they faced the challenge. Watching him collapse at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be considered the person who doesn’t make it in his country. Seeing him tear up Estonia in a recent friendly, scoring all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or setting the tone for play against Italy at Finalissima, we can sense that a player is playing more freely in the blue-and-white shirt than ever before.

How he will perform on the dance floor in Qatar, remains to be seen, with title holders France and Brazil perhaps the other strongest contenders. There are still those who believe that in order to be seen as the greatest footballer of all time, he must come home with the trophy. However, Messi, our fixed point for a long time, has already found his way through the universe; All we have left is our dread and perhaps our grief at his last voyage.

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