Lionel Messi’s Last Dance – The Ringer

Every city has a landmark: a building or landmark that, no matter where you are in the city, you can find your way home just by looking or reaching it. In Rio, is the statue of Christ the Redeemer, looking down from Corcovado mountain; In Berlin, is the magnificent Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. In an increasingly chaotic industry, there is something eternally comforting about these constants.

In the presence of many football fans, the World Cup is such a fixed point. As we go through our weeks and months, our joys and our sorrows, the World Cup is always there, no more than four years away, the event we mark the stages of our lives. We start learning about it in our youth and we crave it all the way through our fall and winter. 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 years old, but it’s important to me that I’ve seen nine World Cups.

As we watch the World Cup, we begin to notice certain patterns that repeat themselves in each tournament. There are groups that excite us at first and then gently subside, melting into the ether like romances that were not meant to be: These are the “flames of summer,” like Colombia in 2014. There are groups which are not good. enough to win the whole thing, but it will give the eventual World Cup finalists their toughest leg of the journey: These are the “gatekeepers,” like Argentina’s elite team coached by Jorge Sampaoli that France had to beat in the Round of 16 in 2018. The side, who Sampaoli said would go out and play “with a knife between their teeth,” were defeated only after ‘a exciting game in which they forced France, who were used to taking risks, to attack from all sides. The game, widely regarded as the best of the World Cup, saw Kylian Mbappé – who scored a first-half penalty and scored twice in five second-half minutes – rise to the occasion. It was also the first time France looked like they could be real champions. And there are still other teams – say, Senegal in 2002 – that came to the party faster than many expected, and continue to be interesting to talk about, if only for a while. They are often known as “dark horses,” but I prefer to call them a term given by my The stadium Podcast host Ryan Hunn: “marriage wreckers.”

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However, the surest form of all is the “last dance.” This is the time when an elite player—someone whose impact on the game is so great that it is almost a statue in itself—prepares to play his final tournament. Winning the World Cup is a surprising, and perhaps even unfair, measure of a footballer’s greatness, as luck plays an unusually large role. It means winning in a series of games, played over a period of more than a month, in which a person must have the first chance to be healthy and have a team around him that fills him in a certain way. Judging a player’s greatness by the World Cup is as absurd as judging a university student by the result of a one-hour test after five years of study.

However, this is the point that Leo Messi has reached now, when he arrives at the World Cup which he has confirmed will be his last. At every season, he has been at the tactical and spiritual heart of this Argentinian team: from his early years as a speedy winger to the middle of his career as a number of all actions. 10 in his current incarnation as a more patient, central and withdrawn player. Watching Messi for Argentina now feels like realizing with alarm that you’ve reached the last glass of your best bottle of red wine: You’re enjoying the ride, but you’re afraid that maybe you can eat enough of it.

The last time in football was when Zinedine Zidane announced, before the 2006 World Cup, that this tournament would be the last time he won the football field. Now, we found ourselves watching every game with a heightened sense of urgency, knowing that any attack by France would be the end for Zidane. The night before the final, which France achieved largely thanks to his genius, I spent the evening watching highlights of his career on YouTube, then went for a short walk nearby and my apartment. It’s embarrassing to reveal this, but when I think about it, I think I was grieving. For years, Zidane’s game has been a constant source of escape, of beauty: No matter how hard my work week has been, I know I can tune in on Saturday or Sunday to see him did at least one amazing thing for his team or country. .

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It was the same with Messi. There have been many times over the past few years when I’ve taken a short break from my desk for a walk across town, and that break turned into a 90-minute layover. I quit my job as soon as I passed the local store and saw that Messi’s team was about to start. Pep Guardiola told us this long ago: “Keep watching Messi,” because one day we won’t. I may never see the Northern Lights in person, but watching the ever-present Messi on all those television screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to that celestial wonder: a powerful presence hanging over us, unknown to most of us. the space it illuminates in a delightful way.

As Messi prepares for his final dance, he will do so as a supporting player in what is perhaps his toughest battle to date, with Argentina last year’s Copa winners América for the first time since 1993. Messi was there. part of many talented national teams—perhaps the 2006 World Cup selection, which included Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, Hernán Crespo, Javier Saviola, and Juan Román Riquelme—but none who made the decision. Here, he can rely on the defensive brilliance of Cristian Romero, the bold and passionate goalkeeping of Emi Martínez, the exceptional finishing of Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez, and the creative genius of Ángel Di María. Finally, he has his loyal lieutenant Rodrigo de Paul, who always seems to be the first on the scene whenever Messi is threatened by an opposition player.

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That the Copa América was won by the hosts Brazil, coming as it did at the Maracanã stadium, was the most important step for Messi, who was the player of the tournament. It meant that he was looking for a higher title than Diego Maradona, a man whose legend was a burden to emulate or even surpass in some way – and it meant that, in some degree, he was relieved from great pressure. It was the first competition during which the power went from Messi carrying the team to the team carrying Messi. Surprised in the first games, he cut a tired man at the end of the last game, losing a chance to win the game that he could have achieved with his speed. Along the way, he had to rely on the strength of his teammates more than ever: And individually, either Martínez with his penalty shootout heroics against Colombia or Di María with his winner against Brazil, they met the challenge. Watching him go down at the final whistle, it was clear that Messi knew he would no longer be seen as a permanent fixture in his country. When we saw him tear Estonia apart in a recent friendly, where he scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win, or masterfully dictate the game against Italy in the Finalissima, we we heard someone play more freely in the blue-and-white shirt game than before.

How he fares on the dance floor in Qatar remains to be seen, with defending champions France and Brazil perhaps some of the strongest contenders. There are still those who believe that, in order for him to be considered the greatest player in football, he must go home with the trophy. Yet Messi, our long-term stalwart, has found his way through the universe; and all that remains is our admiration and perhaps the dismay of his last flight.

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