Lionel Messi’s Last Dance – The Ringer

Every city has a monument that is its reference point: a building or a landmark that, no matter where you are in the city, you can find your way home just by looking or walking towards it. In Rio, it’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer, looking down from Corcovado Mountain. in Berlin, is the majestic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic universe, there is something forever comforting about these fixed points.

With the existence of many football 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, no more than four years away, an event by which we mark the stages of our lives. We first learned it in our youth and still crave it through our autumns and into our winters. It’s probably 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 watched nine World Cups.

As we watch the World Cup, we begin to notice certain patterns that repeat themselves in every tournament. There are teams that excite us at first and then fade gently, melting into the ether like romances that weren’t meant to be: These are the ‘summer flames’, like Colombia in 2014. There are teams that aren’t good enough to win it all thing, but it will give the World Cup winners the most difficult stage of the entire journey: These are the “gatekeepers”, like the resilient Argentina team coached by Jorge Sampaoli that France had to overcome in the round of 16. in 2018. That team, who Sampaoli said would come out to play “with a knife between their teeth”, were beaten only after a thrilling duel in which they forced the normally risk-averse France into an all-out attack. That match, widely regarded as the best of that World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappé – who won a penalty in the first half and scored twice in the space of five minutes in the second half – make his first leap towards sublime. It was also the first time that France looked like they might actually be champions. Then there are still other teams – say, Senegal in 2002 – who show up to the gig with far more panache than expected and go on in exciting fashion to do all that, if only for a little while. They are commonly known as “the dark horses”, but I prefer to call them by the phrase that offers me Stage Ryan Hunn podcast co-host: “the wedding crashers”.

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The surest motif, however, is “the last dance”. That’s what happens when a top player—someone whose influence on the game is so significant that it’s almost a monument in itself—is about to play the final of the tournament. Winning the World Cup is a strange and perhaps even unfair yardstick by which to judge a footballer’s greatness, given that it is a path where luck plays an unusually large role. It means dominating a series of games, played over a month, for which the individual must first be lucky enough to be fully fit and then have a team around him that complements him in some way. Judging a player’s greatness by a World Cup is as absurd as judging a student on the result of a single one-hour exam after five years of study.

However, this is where Leo Messi has now reached, heading into a World Cup he has confirmed will be his last. With each season he moves towards both the tactical and the intellectual heart of this Argentina team: from his early years as a winger at medium speed to his mid-career as more than that. 10 in his current incarnation as a more patient, more central and more withdrawn playmaker. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels like the anxious realization 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.

The last time football felt this painful was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this match would be the last time he graced a football stadium. We then found ourselves watching each game with a heightened sense of danger, knowing that any defeat for France would spell the end 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 and 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 game was a constant source of escapism, of beauty: No matter how rough my work week was, I knew I could tune in on Saturday or Sunday to see him do at least one wonderful thing for the team or his country. .

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The same goes for Messi. There have been countless times over the last few years that I’ve taken a short break from my office for a walk around town and that break soon turned into 90 minutes of quitting my job as soon as I passed a local pub and saw that Messi and the team were about to kick off. . Pep Guardiola told us a long time ago: “Always watch Messi”, because one day we won’t make it. I may never see the Northern Lights in person, but watching the famously reclusive Messi on all those TV screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to this celestial wonder: an effervescent presence hanging over us, so unknown to more of us than the void it so fascinatingly illuminates.

As Messi prepares for his last dance, he will do so with a supporting cast that is perhaps his most battle-hardened yet, with Argentina having last year won the Copa America for the first time since 1993. Messi was part of several highly gifted national teams – perhaps most notably the 2006 World Cup selection, which included Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola and Juan Roman Riquelme – but none so decisive. Here, he can rely on the defensive excellence of Cristian Romero, the brave and charismatic goalkeeping 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 loyal lieutenant Rodrigo de Paul, who always seems to be first on the scene whenever Messi is physically threatened by an opposing player.

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This Copa América victory over hosts Brazil, which took place at the iconic Maracanã stadium, was a doubly important milestone for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant he claimed a higher title than even Diego Maradona, the man whose legend he had been tasked with emulating or even surpassing – and it also meant that, on some level, he had been freed from so much pressure. It was the first tournament in which the dynamic shifted from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Stunning in the early rounds, he cut an exhausted figure by the end of the final, missing the chance to win the game he would have scored in the best possible way. 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 penalty shootout heroics against Colombia or Di Maria 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 his country’s perennial bane. Watching him tear Estonia apart in a recent friendly, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or royally dictate the direction of the game against Italy in the Finalissima, we could sense someone playing with greater freedom in the blue-and-white shirt than ever before.

How she will fare at the Qatar circuit remains to be seen, with defending champions France and Brazil perhaps the other strongest contenders. There are still those who believe that to be considered the greatest footballer of all time, he should go home with the trophy. However, Messi, our stalwart for so long, has already found his own path in the world. and all that remains is our awe and perhaps our melancholy at his last flight.

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