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Politically, socially, and competitively, there is much to be said about the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There are the manifold human-rights violations of the host nation. There is the question of how an authoritarian state twice the size of Delaware with no soccer history to speak of secured the rights to host the world’s biggest sporting event. (Qatar has adamantly denied bribery allegations.) There is the fact that Russia was booted from the event because of its invasion of Ukraine, while the Iranian team was not, despite its ongoing crackdown on protesters. There are, more hearteningly, the shifting demographics of some of Europe’s top teams, and the obvious, endlessly debatable question of who will win. This essay is not about any of that. This is a simple paean to Lionel Messi, the greatest footballer to ever play, on the eve of what, he says, will be his last World Cup.
The 35-year-old Argentine has said as much before, only to renege. But Messi’s previous international retirement came under duress, in the immediate aftermath of a heartbreaking defeat; this time feels different. After leading Argentina to the 2021 Copa America title, he has slain his final bogeyman and put to rest any notion that he just couldn’t deliver for his country on the big stage. He is older now, and although he may still be better than any other player in the world, he is not better than he was two or three years ago. Come the next World Cup, in 2026, he will be 39. If he does suit up then, I’ll be overjoyed. But it’s worth taking a moment to countenance the quite significant possibility that he will not—that this is it.
First, for those unfamiliar, a brief survey of the raw stats. After arriving, at age 13, at FC Barcelona’s famed development academy, Messi went on to lead the club to 10 domestic league titles and four European Champions League titles. He has won the Ballon d’Or, presented annually to the world’s best player, a record seven times. He holds, by large margins, the European records for the most goals scored in a league campaign, the most goals scored in a season in all competitions, and the most goals scored in a calendar year. His career assist tally is miles ahead of second place. If you’re the sort who puts more stock in advanced metrics, Messi has dominated them all over the past 15 years.
If you’re skeptical of these metrics—or even if you’re not—just watch the man play.
Because in truth, no statistics come close to capturing what it is like to watch Messi. Trying to translate that experience into data is like handing someone your mother’s résumé to explain why you love her so much. You know that scene in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible arrives home from work in his rickety old car and salaryman shirtsleeves and asks the wide-eyed little boy on his tricycle, “Well, what are you waiting for?” to which the little boy answers, “I don’t know! Something amazing, I guess”? Well, that’s sort of what it’s like to watch Lionel Messi with the ball at his feet. He makes you feel, as no other player can, that at any moment something amazing could happen. You lean forward—if not literally, then psychically.
And like the little boy in The Incredibles, you have good reason to. Earlier in the movie, the boy saw Mr. Incredible lift the car above his head; over the past 15-odd years, we have watched Messi perform similarly superhuman feats on the pitch. The physics-defying free kicks whizzing off his incomparable left foot, dipping over the wall, curling around the wall, even sneaking under the wall. The panoptic passes that, even from our privileged, television-camera view, look for all the world like bridges to nowhere until somehow, miraculously, they arrive at their destination.
Most remarkable of all are the impossible, show-stopping dribbling runs. The one where, as if by actual sorcery, he seemed to open the ground beneath the feet of Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng, then floated the ball oh-so-delicately beyond the reach of the world’s best goalkeeper. The zigzagging slalom past almost the entire Real Madrid midfield and defense to seal the 2011 Champions League semifinal. The legendary Maradona-esque solo run at the age of just 19, a goal that proceeds like a play in five acts, each so unbelievable it could make you fall out of your chair if the first had not already left you bug-eyed on the floor. Moments like these are wont to send even professional commentators’ voices soaring into near-ultrasonic octaves.
Messi’s play is somehow both sumptuous and minimalist. He will give you none of the gratuitous flash and toreador showmanship characteristic of his longtime nemesis and foil, Cristiano Ronaldo. (And don’t even start with me on the Ronaldo-is-better garbage, a position that is both statistically and, perhaps, morally bankrupt.)
Ronaldo is a 6-foot-2 Adonis with enough hubris to make the world go round; Messi is an unassuming 5-foot-7 with a personality to match. Ronaldo was arguably the sport’s most notorious flopper, until Neymar took the dive-and-writhe routine to new theatrical heights; Messi famously does not simulate. Ronaldo will lavish you with stepovers and scissors and party tricks. Messi uses only the simplest feints and manipulations of the ball, plus the occasional, glorious nutmeg. There is never a hint of wasted motion. He is, in his own, peerless way, as un-baroque as any bruising English center back. He has whittled the game down to its essentials, made artistry of economy. And yet there is nothing mechanical about him. His every touch looks gentle as a brushstroke. He is one of those rare athletes—Jordan and Federer come to mind—capable of making you acutely aware, in moments of magic, that sports are a matter not merely of competition but of aesthetics.
We are not likely to see another like him anytime soon. In recent years, the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly (which, again, is really a Messi monopoly) has shown signs of decline. Last year, Barcelona’s disastrous financial situation forced Messi to leave for the French club Paris Saint-Germain, where he had his worst season since he broke onto the scene as a teenager (still sublime by mortal standards). Ronaldo has spent most of this season on the bench and has thrown as many temper tantrums as he has scored goals. His club team, Manchester United, now intends to sue him rather than play him.
Already a new binary star system has emerged, made up of the towering Norwegian demi-god Erling Haaland and the lightning-fast Frenchman Kylian Mbappé. Haaland is a physically overpowering, ruthlessly efficient goal machine who is on track this season to shatter the English Premier League’s scoring record. Mbappé has more flair and is, for the moment at least, the more multidimensional player. Each is, in his own way, a breathtaking physical specimen. Neither, though, is Lionel Messi.
Last year, even Messi’s most devoted fans might have wondered if, entering his mid-30s, old age had finally caught up with him. But the opening months of this season have assuaged any doubts: He is back to his old, brilliant self. And just in time for what is almost certainly, internationally, his last dance. So root for him, or root against him. But take a moment, please, and savor him while you can.
Listen to writer Clint Smith discuss the complicated feelings he has for soccer on a special episode of Radio Atlantic: