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Find this photographer/This is begging for a citation

“Soccer keeps people from thinking about more dangerous things.” – Vicente Calderón, longtime President of Atlético de Madrid

It was 2018. Nigeria, ever the underdog, was just under a quarter of an hour into a match against Argentina that would seal the fate of both sides. Nigeria was playing from a position of relative power; Argentina, as ever, was in a place of righteous indignation and suffering from internal ailments.

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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.

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“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.

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Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

When he was 21 years old, a Minnesotan under the pseudonym Bob Dylan recorded his breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. On it, he displayed a full cultural fluency with American traditional folk music and the lifestyles of those who inspired and created it, though his brand came with a unique twist upon which he would expand with subsequent releases. Many music critics believe that his three-album run of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde from 1964-’66 is among the finest eras of creative output produced at the hand of any single artist. His antagonistic attitude toward the media and the fans who turned against him fueled the rage which would revolutionize popular music over the course of the 1960s and ’70s. Some may disagree with his sensibilities and style, but it is impossible to discredit his impact.

By the time he was the same age, Bobby Fischer had recorded the only perfect score in the history of the U.S. National Chess Championship, striding into an impressive prime. A stunning rise in the chess world would see him become an American hero upon beating the Soviet Boris Spassky for the World Championship in 1972. He was already hinting at the unhinged tendencies which would eventually force his withdrawal from the public eye at the height of the Cold War before re-emerging as a hate-spewing shell of his former self.

Fans of Liverpool F.C. hope to see a similar prime from an exceptionally polarizing new signing. Mario Balotelli is equal parts Bob Dylan and Bobby Fischer, brilliant and maddening in complementary doses.

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Think, if you will for a moment, of your country’s wildest sporting dream. For Canadians, a gold medal in hockey might be just the accessory to go with all that maple syrup. In Australia, winning the Rugby World Cup over rivals New Zealand and South Africa is a source of pride for locals. The people of the United States find it best to rest laurels on domestic competitions, only really getting involved externally if their nation happens to be exerting dominance as a sort of athletic manifest destiny. Regardless of the means, people love putting stock in competition because they believe the payoff far outweighs potential letdowns. It is fun to concoct scenarios, however unlikely, in which your team defies all the odds to win. Be careful what you wish for, however. Living vicariously means dying vicariously, and the only resting place for most is a grave on the world’s most visible stage – the FIFA World Cup.

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argentina vs portugalOn Thursday, the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins in Brazil. While many eyes will be on the home team, which is the nominal favorite to capture its record-extending sixth World Cup title, thirty-one other teams will be vying to bring the glory of the beautiful game’s most hallowed prize to their homelands. Many of these sides have legendary players in various stages of their primes. Some seem simply to be along for the experience of playing on a senior international level as a sort of deposit for the future (See: Green, Julian). For all the acclaim of Brazil’s joga bonito, Italy’s azzurri and Die Mannschaft of Germany, two individual players are carrying the weight of their countries perhaps more heavily than anyone else, with the outcome of the tournament potentially dictating their places among the game’s all-time greatest.

I am, of course, talking about Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

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