If you have followed me or my writing, you’ll know that my own journey with the maddening game began with this freekick 20 years and six World Cups ago. In 2002, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate what I was witnessing with the Brazilian side—that arrived only in hindsight—but I can still recall that overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling, one that I’ve experienced only a few times since and keeps me hooked to a sport that routinely demands more than it can return.
But oh that feeling.
Over the years, and since my foray into club football, I’ve questioned whether I still feel the same pull towards the tournament that started it all; whether Arsenal captured everything I had to give. But, also, increasingly so, whether I’d ever feel the way I used to about football itself knowing all that I do now, with the game so changed and so irretrievably corrupt. With the life of a modern-day football fan embodying contradictory dichotomies—the Super League fiasco was just one example, but there are so many in a world ruled by money and vested interests (what isn’t, these days, is a discussion for another day). We’ve all had to reflect on our fandom, the price we pay for choosing not to recognise those truths, and whether it’s possible for multiple realities to co-exist in this new space we’re (hopefully) creating for ourselves.
In 2022, even more than in 2018, I couldn’t muster the excitement and anticipation that usually precedes the tournament. I hadn’t planned my schedule around the games or made plans with friends. That feeling just wasn’t there. Even though seeing Japan and, especially, Morocco shine as the games went on was a buoyant thing.
But through all of this, despite it, I never stopped hoping as hungrily as it is possible to, that Lionel Messi would go on to win it.
Ask me as a staunch Gooner and I’ll name multiple examples of the exquisite pain that he has inflicted upon us. Ask me as a football fan and I’ll tell you how it felt to watch him in person at Camp Nou in the heart of that Barca side at the peak of their powers, how he made the game look effortless, the ball weightless whether he was scoring or simply nudging, coaxing it along. Moulded into my vision of the game by Le Prof Arsene Wenger, football for me has always been first about the beauty, the possibility, the hope.
How then could I not hope that a fairytale end was possible for the diminutive left-footed magician from Rosario?
Pathos, destiny, and legacy
Lionel Andrés Messi, born just under a year after El Diego lifted the Jules Rimet trophy at the Estadio Azteca, has carried the kind of pressure and expectation that would be insurmountable for anyone else, and almost was, many times, even for him. He has carried the weight of a legacy forged before he was born; thrust upon him without consent, as on many other Argentine footballers over the years, including the elegant Pablo Aimar, one of Messi’s childhood heroes, and incidentally the current assistant coach for Lionel Scaloni.
But Leo is the only one who has had to bear it for so suffocatingly long. Some—much, you can argue—of it is his own fault for being so damn good for so many years. Gods-given talent aside, don’t let anyone ever tell you he didn’t continuously challenge himself to be better. He’s doing it even today at the age of 35. Just look at how he takes penalties now as opposed to even just two or three years ago. Look at his improved ability on freekicks and corners. Look at how he has adapted to an ageing body by practising an economy of movement, by being ever observant and waiting, storing it all up for the moments he can explode and twist the game, bamboozling the players marking him; finding, creating space where there is none like he did in the semifinal versus Croatia.
Lionel Messi’s capacity for reinvention, most recently to a scoring playmaker than simply a goalscorer or striker, has ensured that his longevity in the sport has never been questioned. No, all the doubts were about the one accolade missing, gaping in his trophy cabinet, eluding him, taunting him. Was he good enough? Strong enough? Leader enough? His doubters included both previous World-Cup-winning captains from his homeland.
The World Cup is the holy grail Messi has most coveted not for selfish reasons of personal glory, but to finally emerge into the gleam of his own, unassailable, right to lay claim to the blue and white No. 10 shirt. To be Argentinian on his own merit, not as the next Diego Armando Maradona.
The Greek roots of the term ‘pathos’ are defined as to “experience, undergo, suffer”—the Greeks also believed that this experience was the way to attain fame as a hero. “Our destiny was to suffer,” claimed Golden Glove hero Emi Martinez after it was all over. Who can deny that the tithe demanded at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday was anything but the pinnacle of that very prolonged, winding journey?
Football results rest on agonising split seconds, the razor-slim margins of ifs and buts, the magnanimity of Lady Luck and the pantheon of those fickle, chaotic football gods. If Emi Martinez had not saved from what seemed like a sure-shot winner for France in the dying seconds of extra time. If Lloris hadn’t got a hand to Messi’s blistering shot earlier on. If Lautaro Martinez had scored either of his chances as the game edged towards penalties. Even the seemingly anointed ones like Lionel Messi have to work and sweat and stress for their luck; even when this entire tournament has felt like destiny.
There is so much that I could say and write about Leo. About how joyous it has felt to see him so unfettered and feisty on the pitch as he finally embraces the leadership role on his terms, how lucky we are to witness his brilliance for so long and see it distilled into its more potent version yet. About all the records he has broken and set over the past two weeks. His lethal grace even at 35 years of age.
I’m not interested in comparisons. That isn’t what this piece is about. Nor is it about making my case for the GOAT debate. Football, like so much else, is subjective, and statistics can routinely be misleading, never revealing the whole story. I’m also not an analyst or expert on the technical side of the game. This isn’t a piece refuting his detractors either (can he do it on a cold, wet, Wednesday night in Stoke, who knows), or about the very real human cost of this World Cup. Many other, better-placed folks continue to tell those important stories.
All of this to say that even before he finally, finally shrugged off his monumental weight, Messi, for me, was one of the best to ever play the game. Because of that inexplicable, overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling; the continued glimpse into the endless lands of sacred, breathless, possibility and divinity. It has always been my first association with football. How something or someone made me feel.
But to see him, at long last, lift that trophy on the back of a dream tournament that started with a nightmare, and almost faltered at the final hurdle? I’ll let you know if I find the words.
One thing I will say: even as this immensely satisfying closure drifted to earth, there was a renewed sense of awe that another football narrative cycle was already in motion. As euphoric as it was to witness this culmination of a cherished dream many thought too far out of reach, it felt fitting that he had to first go up against the 23-year-old whirlwind that is Kylian Mbappe, who has the strongest claim to his crown in the years to come. Watching Messi is a privilege many of us have probably taken for granted over the past decade and a half because, well, he has always been there, at the very top. Seeing the PSG teammates together was an unexpected reminder of how lucky we are to continue to bear witness to such genius, how much there is to come even as this one chapter glides to its conclusion.
The art of the unforeseeable
They say that there are only a few truly authentic stories in the world. That no matter how much we try, ‘original’ can mean only so much within reason and context.
Offer up even the most complex, realistic of sports stories on the screen and on the page, and you’ll find a formula, tropes that exist for ease of accessibility and recognition no matter how much the characters grow beyond them. The plucky underdogs, winning against and through all odds, the hero’s journey concluding in triumph.
But transfer all of that to real life and something happens. Suddenly, the far-fetched melts into the possible, running and swirling and pivoting beyond the reach of any man-made script or imagination. Suddenly, the cliches, the too-convenient coincidences, the contrived symmetry of fiction blurs and jumps from the realm of ‘unrealistic’ and ‘idealistic’ into “football, bloody hell”.
“The more the technocrats programme it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, football continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs: the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a scraggy, bow-legged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous.”—Eduardo Galeano
Even so, fairy tales of this magnitude are truly unique in their infrequency. Twenty years later, I’m immeasurably grateful for the discovery that, despite everything that’s changed and grows ever complicated, despite the mounting demands on conscientious fans, the game still has these brief, suspended pockets to shelter in, draw strength from, touch a sense of the ethereal.
Football is still life-affirming.
“To win without magic, without surprise, or beauty, isn’t that worse than losing?”—Eduardo Galeano