It seems like something of a missed opportunity that my favorite Lionel Messi moment came 11 years ago. There’s been so much since. It just happened to be on my 30th birthday, on a day where pretty much everything went wrong (a fine introduction to one’s 30s, it could be easily argued). Barcelona that day were playing in the first leg of a Champions League semifinal against hated rivals Real Madrid. The 2011 version of Barcelona might have been its best ever. They won the Champions League and La Liga basically at a canter, losing two games combined in the competitions.
The first leg was an awful match. Madrid knew how badly they were outgunned by the Doomsday Gun that was Barca then. This Madrid team tried to Mourinho more than possibly any team has tried to Mourinho, packing their own end with every player and hoping Barcelona would just be off that day. Maybe they then could nick an away goal in the second leg. That was the idea. It mostly worked.
Then Messi happened:
My favorite part of this is when Sergio Busquets originally receives the ball from Messi before playing it back to him. You can almost sense Busquets saying, “You gonna fucking do something about this? We’re tired and bored.” And then Messi does. It felt like Barca tried doing all the conventional stuff to break down a determined opponent, and then out of frustration and apathy broke out their cheat code that they promised they wouldn’t use again. It was the flipping over of the game board. It was that easy for them when they wanted it to be. Or more to the point, it was that easy for Messi. Sometimes you wondered why he didn’t do that five times per game. Or at least, more often five times per game, because he has scored five in a game. It would be the most unfair statement in history to say that a player who has piled up nearly 800 goals for club and country makes it almost feel like he was holding something back. And yet to see the ease with which he could cut through teams, and it felt like he was simply to be nice.
Messi continues to bend the game in a way no one else has. The thing about soccer is that every move is so fragile, which is why a goal is so exciting. So many things designed to go wrong have to go right for a team or player to score. The inexact science of controlling a moving ball with your feet or trying to pass it or both means that every attacking thrust can fall apart at a moment’s notice. In fact, they’re meant to fall apart. That’s the sport.
And yet Messi is the only player, at least the only player for over a decade, where that doubt, fragility, and failure simply went away. He picked up the ball, and you knew a goal would follow. There wasn’t any doubt. It felt like the opponents just became hired actors. They were out there to play the role of making it look like a soccer game, to give the illusion that things worked the same as they did in the thousands of other games we’ve watched, but fell away in a manner that would have to be scripted when attempting to get anywhere near Messi.
If soccer is a mystery, a house of cards in every match, then Messi has been the skeleton key.
It’s too easy to say Messi’s career is complete now, because it already was. He’s the greatest ever, no matter what happened on Sunday, and anyone who watched him would know that. The numbers are staggering and say enough. But it’s the way the game mutated every time he has been on the field. A vortex floating in from the right side of the field, where every player that got into its gravitational force changed somehow from their normal form.
Judging Messi’s career by World Cups was always unfair, given the warped nature of the tournament. It only happens every four years, and so many things can happen to an international team in four years’ time. You can’t shape a national team like a club team. And even if you get the squad right, injuries and form are no guarantee and there is no transfer kitty to make up for it. And even if you get lucky on that front, having to win four knockout games means anything can happen that you can’t plan for. It’s hard to bend a World Cup to your will. It more just lands on you. If Messi couldn’t bend it to him in four previous attempts, no one could.
Did he bend this one? Fox would like you to believe so. So would a lot of the press. It’s not easy to bury penalty after penalty, but it also doesn’t feel dominant. And yet, even above the popular narratives, during the final and semifinal at least it sure felt like the games gravitated around Messi still. Not because we were just watching him, but because he still produced the moments that mattered. Maybe he doesn’t do it over 90 minutes anymore, but his pull was total in more than enough moments to drive Argentina through.
It’s not that he now has his winner’s medal, but that at 35 he still could tilt the world off its axis when he had to. That’s supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
What will make Sunday’s final so special is that there was another guy on the other team doing the same thing.
Who knows what history will say about Kylian Mbappe when he’s done playing. He certainly did the same for France that Messi did for Argentina. While he wasn’t always the only one scoring or assisting, it was easy to see for any fan the way defenses had to completely warp themselves to cover for the very idea that Mbappe might do something. Which he usually did anyway. Which he did on Sunday, even when France was mostly insipid and toothless. It’s what Messi had to do for whole tournaments with an Argentina team that couldn’t be anything else in the past. Mbappe only had to do it in one game, though the biggest game, and he nearly did it. When he dribbled through three guys in the dying seconds of extra time, it was the same feeling when Messi got going for that goal in Madrid in 2011. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop this. They’re all extras in a movie. Strangely, he didn’t score. We’re all sure he will the next time.
That’s the thing about the best in soccer. They’re always on the field, unlike just about any other sport. Basketball stars still have to build their performances brick by brick. But soccer players have to produce only handful of moments, and as long as they’re out there there’s this foreboding feeling. Or there is when Messi and Mbappe are out there. That feeling that a game meant to frustrate and look impossible and fall apart over and over has been solved by these men.
Some would say it’s a shame that they’ll only do this once. But that’s the thing about a World Cup. It only comes together rarely, and so much has to line up for any team. The planets aligning is only special because it almost never happens. Messi and Mbappe producing that final is too powerful of a force to come together anymore than this one time. That we’ll wait our entire lives for anything like it, and probably not get it, makes what happened on Sunday one of the greatest experiences the world will share. It has to, and will, remain singular.
On the other end of the sporting spectrum, the Patriots ran the dumbest play in NFL, and possibly American sports, history to lose to the Raiders on the last play of the game:
I don’t want to say one play can tarnish a six-Super Bowl strong legacy that Bill Belichick has, and yet…
No team that is a well-oiled machine, that Belichick’s teams are always supposed to be, comes up with ooze like this. This isn’t a mistake so much as a total breakdown. This is an entire team suddenly thinking it’s a glass of orange juice. You ever watch an entire organization evacuate its bowels in the middle of a cocktail party? Now you have.
It made for an opposite pole to the generational greatness of the morning. But then, without comedic, if not downright paralyzing dumbassery, we can’t truly know what greatness is, can we?