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 the city, you can find your way home just by looking or reaching towards it. In Rio, it’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer, looking down from Corcovado Mountain; in Berlin, it is the magnificent Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic universe, there is something eternally comforting about these fixed points.

In the existence of many soccer fans, the World Cup is such a fixed point. As we go through our weeks and months, our joys and disappointments, the World Cup is always there, never more than four years, an event to mark the stages of our lives. We first learn about it in our youth and still yearn for it through our autumns and all winters. It is perhaps the only other thing, apart from the number of years we have lived, by which we can measure our age: I am 43 years old, but it is almost as important to me that I have witnessed nine World Cups.

As we watch the World Cup, we begin to notice certain patterns that repeat themselves at every tournament. There are teams that get us excited at the start and then fade away, melting into the ether like romances that weren’t meant to be: These are the “flames of the summer,” like Columbia 2014. There are teams that aren’t good enough to win the whole thing, but the eventual winners will give the World Cup the most difficult stage of the whole journey: These are the “gatekeepers”, like the resilient Argentina team coached by Jorge Sampaoli, which France had to overcome in the round of 16 in 2018. That team, which Sampaoli said will come out to play ” with a knife between their teeth”, was defeated only after an exciting duel in which they forced France, normally risk-averse, into an all-out attack. In that game, considered the best of that World Cup, Kylian Mbappé – who earned a penalty in the first half and scored twice in a five-minute span in the second half – made his first leap towards greatness. It was also the first time that France looked like they could actually be champions. Then there are other teams – say, Senegal 2002 – who turn up at the function with far more swagger than expected, and proceed in exciting fashion to make it all about themselves, if only for a short while. They are commonly known as “dark horses”, but I prefer to call them the phrase offered by mine Stadium podcast co-host Ryan Hunn: “Wedding Crashes.”

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However, the surest pattern of all is the “last dance”. Then an elite player – someone whose impact on the game is so significant that they are almost a monument in themselves – prepares to play their final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange, and perhaps even unfair, measure by which we judge the greatness of a footballer, given that it is a path in which chance plays an abnormally large role. This means prevailing in a series of matches, played over a month, for which an individual must first be lucky enough to be fully fit, and then have a team around him that complements him in some way. Judging the size of a World Cup player is as absurd as judging a student based on one one-hour exam after five years of study.

Yet this is the point Leo Messi has now reached, arriving at the World Cup he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he moved towards the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentine team: from his early years as a warp-speed winger to his mid-career as an uncapped number. 10 to his current incarnation as a more patient, central and withdrawn playmaker. Watching Messi for Argentina now is 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 fear that you may not have enjoyed it enough.

The last time football was this moving was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this competition would be the last time he graced the football pitch. We then found ourselves watching each game with a heightened sense of danger, knowing that any defeat for France would be the end for Zidane. The night before the final, which France reached largely thanks to 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 on reflection, I think I was grieving. For years, Zidane’s performance has been a consistent source of escape, of beauty: No matter how hard my work week was, I knew that on Saturday or Sunday I could see him do at least one miraculous thing for his club or country.

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The same was true for Messi. There have been countless times over the past few years when I’ve taken a short break from my desk to walk around town, and that break soon turned into a 90-minute interruption of my work when I passed the local pub 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 be able to witness the Northern Lights in person, but seeing the famously reclusive Messiah on all those television screens is probably the closest thing to that celestial wonder: an effervescent presence hanging above us, unknown to most of us and the void it so thrillingly illuminates.

As Messi prepares for his final dance, he will do so with perhaps the most battle-hardened supporting cast to date, with Argentina winning the Copa America for the first time since 1993 last year. Messi has been part of several extremely talented national teams—perhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup squad, which featured Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Román Riquelme—but none has been as decisive. Here you can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeeper Emi Martínez, the outstanding finishing of Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez, and the creative genius of Angelo Di Maria. Last but not least, he has his loyal lieutenant Rodrigo de Paulo, who is always the first on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.

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The Copa America victory over hosts Brazil, as well as at the iconic Maracana stadium, was a doubly important milestone for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant he was chasing a senior title that was beyond even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he was burdened to emulate or even somehow surpass – and it also meant he was, on some level, relieved of so much pressure. It was the first tournament during which the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Impressive in the early rounds, he dropped an exhausted figure by the end of the final, missing the chance to win the game he would have scored the most sharply. Along the way, he had to draw on the strength of his teammates like never before: And one by one, whether it was Martinez with his heroic penalty against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they rose to the challenge. Watching him collapse at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he could no longer be considered a perennial underachiever for his country. Watching him tear through Estonia in a recent friendly, scoring all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or commanding the game royally against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense someone playing with more freedom in the blue-and- white shirt than ever before.

How they 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 in order to be considered the greatest football player of all time, he must go home with a trophy. Yet Messi, our fixed point for so long, has already found his way through the cosmos; and all that remains is our awe and perhaps our melancholy at his last flight.

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