In the work of literature to which I return most frequently, Eduardo Galeano writes, “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than the stands bereft of people.”
He goes on to describe the sounds of games past, the echoes of Wembley from ’66 or the Camp Nou at any time when you’re unfortunate enough to miss Messi’s magic in real time, but he could have just as easily been describing any of the myriad pickup games that my oldest, not older, brother and I saw happening in Lima on and around Christmas, the holiday season be damned for anything but an occasion on which to kick around. People certainly invoke God enough to demand some time, after all.
For the third consecutive summer, the Argentina national team made it to the final of a major international competition, only to lose by another impossibly thin margin. The greatest player in the world missed his penalty, and the Skip Bayless proxies on social media went to task, questioning the player’s and his team’s toughness as well as their lack of the clutch gene, that peculiar strand of DNA which allows select Homo sapiens the ability to complete tasks in children’s playground games under artificially important circumstances.
In the immediate aftermath of that loss, a 0-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa América Final at MetLife Stadium last Sunday chock-full of deplorable officiating, Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football, only 29 years old and still in the midst of a white-hot prime. Whether the retirement ends up being permanent is likely in the hands of the Argentine Football Association, which has taken a number of crucial missteps while ostensibly advocating for one of its greatest generations of players. Even insofar as Messi is to blame for a single penalty miss, Messi is still not to blame, and he is still the greatest outfield player ever to knock a ball around a pitch. If that ends up being his last work in the light blue and white stripes, however, a hole nevertheless remains.
“Stand out of my light.” So goes the punchline in Plutarch’s retelling of the one and only meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher, the latter of whom had only the preceding request for the Macedonian king. To take the tale at face value, there couldn’t have been too many duos less alike in ancient Greece around 336 BCE. As powerful as almost any human being ever, Alexander is infamous for having wept at the notion that he had no worlds left to conquer. Diogenes sought out poverty, thriving in destitution and sleeping in a ceramic jar.
As cavernous as the gap between Diogenes and Alexander was, so, too, is that between the teams meeting in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final. With a cursory glance, one may suspect that the teams share few similarities. Part of that, of course, comes with comparing any team to Real Madrid in the European Cup; having won ten of them, more than any other club, gives you an air of esteem and pomp without parallel. Their opponents in this case, however, are achingly familiar with flying close to the sun as their wings start to melt. Like Alexander after meeting Diogenes, Real may leave San Siro stunningly impressed with the exploits of Atlético Madrid.
For all the talk about sports being an escape from reality, the reason so many of us enjoy them is the same reason many people enjoy video games or trash television: they are just close enough to life itself that, for the time we spend indulging in them, we feel apart of something. Better yet, that something isn’t necessarily happening to us, like missing a green light or getting unexpectedly charged an exorbitant gratuity, so we can be as attached or unattached as we want.
Going a step further, sometimes sports can function as a perfect facsimile for life, really. Excessive hope leading to monumental disappointment; lowered expectations giving way to delightful surprises; and beauty presenting itself as madness, or vice versa. At various points over the last eighteen months or so, Leicester City F.C. has embodied all of these. Yet now, only one distinction matters to the team and its fans: champions of England.
“He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” – David Bowie, “Starman“
But for the hopeful benevolence of one of the oligarchical Spanish soccer clubs in 2000, we would never have arrived here. A trial, a napkin contract and several seasons of sustained brilliance in one of the world’s foremost leagues and, indeed, the world’s foremost footballing continent have brought us to the only conclusion possible. With his fifth FIFA Ballon d’Or award arriving on Monday, Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player ever.
On Wednesday night, the city of New Orleans will host the final game in the illustrious career of the greatest American soccer player ever. If, despite the header image, you are still confused as to the antecedent of that phrase, here is another: the all-time highest goal scorer in international play for both men and women. No? This was the only soccer player listed on the TIME 100 list for 2015, and that was prior to the World Cup victory.
For over a decade, Abby Wambach has been the talisman of American soccer excellence, not unlike Serena Williams in tennis. While the men have had their moments of individual brilliance – Landon Donovan against Algeria in 2010, Tim Howard becoming the Secretary of Defense against Belgium in 2014 – Wambach has sustained her knack for goal-scoring and competitiveness, finally seeing through her destiny in 2015 with a World Cup victory in Vancouver, the ultimate revenge against Japan, the country which had stifled a seemingly relentless American machine in 2011. Though the USWNT will continue without her, it would be unfair and callous to casually dismiss the contributions of Abby Wambach to her sport in this country.
For all its faults and the criticism it generates, the international break in soccer does, at the very least, afford us the opportunity to survey the first third of the European domestic leagues. A cursory look at the tables as they stand now reveal mostly what you’d expect with even a rudimentary knowledge of how these things tend to go: Barcelona leads in Spain, tracked closely by both Madrid squads; Bayern Munich is on top in Germany with the kind of goal differential that is reminiscent of a college student’s bank account (which is to say, impressive for the soccer team, and dire for the student); Paris Saint-Germain is looking to have the French title wrapped up by Christmas, when its focus turns to completing an undefeated domestic season; Inter and Roma are sharing some space with Fiorentina, which is awfully (suspiciously?) charitable of them; and the two Manchester clubs are firmly slotted in the top four in England, with Arsenal and Tottenham closely trailing.
Leading that latter group, however, is an unheralded and unexpected group, with a Jamaican international serving as captain, who are only two seasons removed from promotion. While not the most desolate of England’s clubs, Leicester City is not among its notable fat cats either. With an incendiary scorer, a host of heady midfielders, the keeper son of a keeper man and a well-traveled manager, however, King Power Stadium may yet see meaningful continental matches and, with more than a bit of luck, a trophy.