The Lionel Messi Guide to Living

Like any great artist, the aging soccer phenom showed a youth-obsessed world the potential glory of a late-style triumph.

Lionel Messi celebrates his World Cup trophy following Argentina's win
Lionel Messi celebrates his World Cup trophy following Argentina's win (Chris Brunskill / Fantasista / Getty)

The literary critic Edward Said coined the phrase late style to describe the final works of a composer or writer—when the decay of the body can’t help but inform artistry, when creativity is infused with the bumps, bruises, and wisdom of a life almost fully lived.

In soccer years, 35 makes the Argentine forward Lionel Messi a veritable geriatric. And this World Cup was his final opus, his version of Beethoven’s last string quartets or Monet’s lily ponds. And what makes Argentina’s thrilling triumph something to savor is how this victory was both the culmination of his career and the embodiment of a late style, a performance that carried the melancholic sense of an ending.

At the beginning of the tournament, the pundits agreed on a story line. The two defining figures of the era—Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo—had won every prize in the game except for the ultimate one. Qatar represented their final opportunity to fill in the gap, to capture a trophy regarded as essential for staking a claim to the best who ever played.

Ronaldo, 37, flailed because he couldn’t adapt to his physical decline. He insisted on playing as if he were 10 years younger. By acting as if he was essential, he became superfluous. And in his final game, a flaccid defeat to Morocco, he came off the bench, contributed little, then left the field in tears—without shaking hands with his opponents or consoling his bereft teammates. It was a pathetic way to exit, befitting a vain career.

That’s the counterpoint to Messi’s victory. Without the legs to carry him, Messi economized his movements. Rather than pretending that he was a young man, he played like an older one. He ambled through games, saving himself for the moments that he could assert himself. He showed a remarkable awareness about how he might be able to parcel out his dwindling corporeal self, how he needed to make choices about when to give himself fully.

For most of his career, Messi has profited by dropping back into the midfield, drawing defenders out of position, creating space for his teammates to exploit. When he touched the ball, he panicked defenders who couldn’t be sure if he would race past them or if he would exploit his passing ability to switch the attack or to pick out a target rushing the box.

That particular element of surprise no longer exists, because his speed doesn’t exist. His contributions in the tournament relied largely on his guile—flicks, deception, the drop of his shoulder and the swivel of his hips. It was the moment when he humiliated the 20-year-old Croatian defender, Joško Gvardiol, spinning around him and then serving the ball into a surging Julián Álvarez. Or the no-look pass that tore through the Dutch defense. This trickery wasn’t just the product of natural gifts but also the accumulated wisdom of a career.

Unlike Ronaldo, Messi has aged into a different sort of leader. As a teenager at Barcelona who took growth hormones to become physically plausible for the elite game, he was known as el mudo, the mute one. His introversion seemed a strange contrast to his moments of flamboyance in games.

In Qatar 2022, it was poignant to see how far he had traveled as a human being. There were moments on the field where he played the bastard, fouling brutally and complaining unattractively. But he also assumed a leadership style that suited him. He took responsibility for his team while never acting as if he transcended his team. And his leadership was, in a sense, a form of healing.

To borrow another theme from Edward Said, Messi has lived a life of exile—self-imposed and lucrative, of course. But by playing abroad, he always seemed a bit caught in between: insecure about his connection to his motherland, alienated from his adopted home. He was both an icon to his compatriots and a stranger, a condition exacerbated by the fact that he hadn’t won the biggest trophy of them all for his country. His quest for a World Cup was possibly a quest to repair his relationship with Argentina.

As I watched Messi’s last game in the World Cup, I was, of course, swept up in one of the greatest matches ever played. But I also found myself feeling gratitude to someone who had instructed with his example—who showed, in a world that fetishizes youth, why the late style is quite often the greatest.