…and the world smiles with you

Let me start here, where many others have already landed in the past day-plus: the World Cup final between Argentina and France was the greatest soccer match I’ve ever seen. Recency bias aside, it was certainly the most dramatic. Intergenerational, intra-club team stars; said stars each posting multiple goals; a budding dynasty against a historically great, if slightly underachieving, nation; yellow cards issued toward the bench, controversial penalties, and then penalty kicks; simply put, it had everything. 

Where do you start? You know how it ends, now, after the most minutes played ever in a World Cup and a final which – of course, obviously, how could you possibly think it would go any other way – went to extra time, during which both teams scored – of course, obviously, how could you possibly think it would go any other way – and then went to penalties. Momentum swung like bored suburban parents (yes, tip your servers, I’m here until–).

Smile, and the world smiles with you: we hear this early on and, over time, stop believing it. We know better, with all our gained cynicism and general distrust (some of which may be attributable to the very thing giving you joy also being hosted in an oppressive country under dubious, corrupt circumstances!). Every so often, though, and just often enough to make it worth giving credence to, we’re wrong: a smile from perhaps the world’s single most beloved male athlete, after all of that, is intergalactic. 

Beneath the comfort of a weighted blanket a few hours later, I was still smiling. Let me do him one better: Lionel Messi, a person I don’t know from a country I’ve never been to, has been making me and plenty of others laugh out loud at his awe-inspiring feats of athletic whimsy for something like 12,000 Isner-Mahuts, give or take; sorry, but we’re all running out of ways to quantify this.

***

For the player himself, it began with the mythos, the one you, even as a casual fan with a passing interest in non-Premier League European soccer, can recount by heart: the growth defect; the promise over which it lorded; the napkin contract with FC Barcelona; the seemingly immediate anointing of the undersized Rosario native as the next (choose your indecent comparison to be hoisted upon a 13-year-old); the subsequent rejection of Messi as a true Argentine, his compatriots having viewed his defection as a slight[1].

Both of Messi and Argentina had to endure multiple, cataclysmic heartbreaks that would’ve felled many other would-be national saviors. Unprepared, disorganized Argentinian sides featuring Messi to varying degrees fell to Germany in the knockout stages in both of 2006 and 2010[2] before, oof, the 2014 final, which also went to extra time and nearly went to penalties as well, but for the inspired left foot of Mario Götze in the 113th minute. A dejected Messi won the Golden Boot in that tournament, the coldest consolation.

Some speculated then whether it would be his last Cup, and indeed, after yet another disappointing finish to the 2016 Copa América, he announced his retirement from international soccer. What’s worse? Two weeks after the loss on penalties to Chile, his generational counterpart, Cristiano Ronaldo, won a major tournament with Portugal at Euro 2016. Messi returned to the Argentina team a month later.

2018 featured the first contemporary World Cup meeting between France and Argentina, which France won 4-3 on its way to the title. The coronation of Kylian Mbappé was in full effect, and again, doubt encircled Messi.

Through all of it, Messi’s performances held steady, and he continued racking up individual accolades. With numerous league and continental titles already under his belt at the club level, all that remained was success with Argentina. Somewhere along the way, the Argentine people came around on their generational star, noticing his disappointment and, finally, recognizing him as one of their own. The world, already on board, noticed this.

As one generation turned to another, Messi remained, and in 2021, finally, a breakthrough: winning the Copa América and, in essence, equaling Ronaldo’s success lifted a massive weight. Still, for both, the World Cup remained elusive.

***

This time around, Argentina’s campaign began with an unceremonious loss in the group stage to Saudi Arabia, the 51st-ranked team in the world at the start of this World Cup and not what the average fan might call a tournament favorite[3]. Argentina rebounded from what could’ve been a team-destroying fiasco to win its group, with Messi scoring in two of three games.

Mercifully, perhaps, Germany had not advanced out of its group this time, and Messi continued his torrid form, becoming the first player to score in each of the knockout stages. Julián Álvarez was beginning his own ascent, but Messi remained the team’s metronome.

A closer-than-it-should’ve-been win against Australia led to an instant classic match pitting La Albiceleste against the Netherlands. In a quasi-preview of the final, the game went to penalties, with Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez saving a pair of penalty kicks in between taunting everyone in sight.

Against 2018 runners-up Croatia in the semi-final, Messi scored again, this time on a penalty, before letting Álvarez do some heavy lifting to seal Argentina’s trip to the final. There they would meet the defending world champions, who had played their games as prolonged exhales of a cigarette with just enough short pulls in between to get by their opponents in the knockout stages.

***

A word on France and Kylian Mbappé, while we’re here: I’m paraphrasing, but one of the FOX commentators said that he thought the final revealed France to be a decent team with a world-class player, while Argentina was actually a great team with a world-class player. That is, erm, factually incorrect and also a total discredit to the greatness of the newly 24-year-old Mbappé.

Leaving aside the fact that France last won the World Cup *checks notes* the last time it happened, and that Mbappé was also a huge part of that team, this edition of the team came in hampered by injuries to several key players, sustained a few more and then dealt with a teamwide sickness leading up to the final.

Tied with the likes of Pelé on the World Cup goal scoring charts at 12, and with a championship in hand from 2018, Mbappé is already a living legend of international play. He may very well end up as the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Cup, and his intracontinental play with Paris Saint-Germain suggests he will either be the prize of some big-pocketed club – popular theories most often include a record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid – or, perhaps, stick around and become the person who legitimizes PSG at a global level. Maybe Messi will pull him aside at the next PSG training session with some advice for his club teammate.

***

The final went along in its pointed rhythm: Argentina marinated the first half with its stylish flavor, with Messi converting a penalty and former La Liga rival-turned-sometime PSG teammate Ángel Di María completing one of the most beautiful runs of play in tournament history.

The second half told the story of many of France’s games throughout the tournament: awake, finally, the French became a proxy for Mbappé’s whims, as he scored two goals in less than two minutes of play. Argentina could only pray to get to extra time. Inches separated either team from winning the game outright on several occasions leading to the first final whistle.

Extra time was another script flip: Argentina broke out fiercely, and it would be Messi who scored a rebound – in midair and with his non-dominant[4] right foot, mind you – securing an almost certain victory for his side. The perfect finish! A dream! Except—

A few minutes later, substitute defender Gonzalo Montiel surrendered a handball inside his own goal box to, who else, Kylian Mbappé, who converted his own equalizer. Martínez’s save on what absolutely would have been a Cup-winning shot by Randal Kolo Muani was the heart palpitation before the heart palpitation; my stomach was concrete for the entirety of the match, but I may have created diamonds internally in the final five minutes of extra time; I’m due for a primary care visit in 2023.

Anyway, Messi and Mbappé traded successful penalties, Martínez sported bolas de latón in saving a penalty, and Montiel redeemed himself by burying the final goal. Argentina went 4-for-4 in its penalty kicks, while France fell short twice; as random as penalties can be, this felt appropriate, only because a second round of kicks would’ve surely turned the tides once more.

Argentina, with Lionel Messi as captain and most impactful player, was finally the world champion.

***

If you’re here, especially in this particular piece, you likely know where I stand on all of this. Just after the final and before the trophy ceremony, American audiences were treated to the stylings of Stu Holden describing a friendly that the US men played against Argentina in New Jersey in 2011 as one Messi was disinterested in playing.

As soon as the whistle blew, though, he was his usual self – stutter-stepping opponents off-ball, walking while being double-teamed, attacking with four people on him and not a care in the world but for the goal. That was the first time I saw him with my own eyes[5]; the attention he drew then became a player of his stature, being a twice-defending Ballon d’Or winner, and a little over two months later he would solidify his place in my mind.

Barcelona’s run to the Champions League Final in 2011, and its subsequent victory over Manchester United in a game I watched in a United fan’s house, left me defaulting to Messi, who had scored the game-winning goal after having left Madrid in a post-Armada state over two legs.

***

This is where we get uncomfortable: the extra twenty seconds or so that the world had to wait in order for some official or another to explain to Lionel Messi, maybe in real time the world’s most singularly beloved living figure, how to put on ceremonial dress were a painful reminder that, for all of the pomp surrounding an ostensible furthering of the world’s sport toward new horizons, it’s also all just a blanket money grab, at the cost of many thousands of human lives. Messi’s direct involvement in Saudi Arabia’s current bid for the 2030 World Cup[6] is another reminder of that.

At The Ringer, Brian Phillips tried to contextualize this, as many of us have been doing since this thing got under way in the Very Normal World Cup Season of November:

I still cried for joy when he lifted it. He lifted it after putting on an Arab ceremonial robe, and as he held up the trophy, it was hard not to think (even through joyful tears) that Qatar was claiming him as its asset, displaying him as a sort of brand icon. Qatar pays his salary, after all. Qatar pays Mbappé’s salary, too, because Qatar owns PSG.

https://www.theringer.com/world-cup/2022/12/18/23515703/argentina-france-world-cup-final-lionel-messi-kylian-mbappe

I’m not going to do a better job than that, nor than this tweet from a protected account:

It is, in so many words, not awesome. It’s extremely bleak that, by nature of being interested in sports, you become complicit in some of the dastardliest things people (men, very prominently in this case) can possibly pursue.

Carrying all of that in the back of your mind while watching something so objectively astounding, something so far beyond the realm of typical human comprehension that your brain twists your stomach and causes limbs to shake involuntarily, is a burden for the viewer – and with up to 40% of the world’s population watching at any given time, that hoists a burden onto the players as well, unfairly.

It seems safe to assume that most people in that viewing population did not especially want Qatar to host the World Cup, but they had the, y’know, resources to win the bid over a decade ago, along with Russia’s hosting duties in 2018. Always follow the paper trail, but sometimes you have no choice.

Along with others, I didn’t see myself watching much of this World Cup; beyond a, ahem, ballsy but assuredly doomed showing by the US Men’s National Team, I had no real reason to, and once the USMNT was eliminated, it would’ve been much easier to avoid anything related to the tournament, whether it be the human atrocities committed in its name, the Alexi Lalas atrocities committed in its name or the still-ongoing debates as to how to pronounce the host country’s name in English.

No reason, except for Messi. A week before the World Cup started, at a work lunch, I told my team that my loyalties lay solely with Argentina and not with the US men. The powers that be would have had to pay a lot of different people a lot more money to change that.

The night before the final, I attended a holiday party at a friend’s apartment. The host asked me about the final and, specifically, for whom I would be rooting. I told her I didn’t believe the MLK quote about the universe bending toward justice because that seems pretty apparently untrue, but that if any justice remained anywhere near here, it would be Argentina winning. She agreed, on both counts.

***

Wake up early and find illegal feeds when you don’t know what you’re doing in order to watch a 5’7” dude beat up on the clubs of Spanish municipalities you’ve never heard of: this is the way.

Do the same thing after the original soccerstreams subreddit goes down: you have to see him.

Become enamored with the premise that the man you’re tuning in for could, at any time and seemingly on command, do something no one in human history (yes, including ________) has ever done or will ever do again: it’s the very least you can do.

Become familiar with Spanish geography out of necessity! You want to know how far he has to travel for the next game so you know whether he’ll be tired or not. He’s never tired, visibly, as far as you can tell.

Watch the man in question peel off defenders time and again like Quartararo’s visors at Misano: this is excellence, despite the protests of opponents.

Cry tears of absolute joy. Laugh at the hubris of the world’s greatest defenders! Be reminded that Garrincha used to beat defenders repeatedly simply for his own amusement; also be reminded that Garrincha bailed out Brazil in ’62, and that’s why we Brazil’s home locker room is named after him.

Grin and nod when he captures yet another Champions League title. Clutch your forehead in confusion when what worked for that team immediately falls apart. Nod, eyes closed, when the financial realities of capital-BEC Big European Clubs become apparent, and recognize the emptiness of “Mes Que Un Club,” nakedly money-driven to its own detriment along with everything else.

See him try and fail and try and fail again with his home country, while his adopted country experiences a renaissance in its national team for which he is at least partially responsible: start to feel sadness for a person with more money than you can conceive. Relatedly, ignore his tax follies.

Stand outside a hotel in Hoboken hoping to catch a glimpse of the genius at rest, hours before yet another national team failure: what could Lionel Messi have possibly thought of Hoboken? Did he visit Black Bear? Did he experience the wings at McSwiggan’s, or just observe a slice from Benny Tudino’s? Was he dubiously shown a Carlo’s cake in a misguided PR stunt hours before an international final that would determine his legitimacy as a representative of the very country where he was born??

Witness him fail miserably; be discomfited by it. He is impish and doesn’t make much sense as a traditional physical specimen, and yet he is the greatest player in the history of the world’s most popular sport. Only the shadow of Maradona stood before him.

Tune into ruinous World Cup matches; tune out of the subsequent blame parties.

Catch a World Cup match in an airport, follow as best you can in transit, live through the endless fouls and penalties and taunts and CR7 capes and the chatter that this French team is unstoppable and Kylian’s personal quest to be unstoppable and—

None of it matters now. Many of the same arguments and counters remain: Maradona’s mercurial nature; Pelé’s dominance in the World Cup vs. his loyalty to Santos (and lack of European play); about the next generation poising to seize the moment. None of it matters now.

None of it. Finally, at 35, Lionel Messi is a World Cup champion. With him, Argentina’s skies are a little bluer, its sun a bit brighter. After all that, Messi did it, the one thing the world and his country asked of him. They did it. He fucking did it – the thought of it still brings a smile to my face, and will for what I can only hope is longer than it takes to post this. It brought me and millions of other people the slimmest bit of joy, increasingly the world’s most valuable commodity. The growth-deficient boy who could grew up and just did the damn thing. La posta.


[1] Despite the fact that, given he had a Spanish passport, he could very well have simply played for the Spanish national team during the time of their golden generation peaking, many of whom were his club teammates at Barcelona. He wanted Argentina.

[2] The latter of which featured – who else? – Diego Maradona as Argentina’s manager.

[3] An added wrinkle: the man at the heart of this story is doing PR for Saudi Arabia’s World Cup bid in 2030. Fun!

[4] Initially this read “weaker,” but who am I to suggest that on Lionel Messi’s behalf? For all we know, he’s been toying with us like every defender he encounters all these years and will return to Ligue 1 play switching back to his finally unleashed right foot.

[5] That same week I saw LCD Soundsystem for what I thought would be the last time, yet here we all still are. But don’t worry: the kids are still there, too.

[6] Along with Greece and 2022 tournament darlings Morocco

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