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The World Cup belongs to Lionel Messi

Before penalties started at the end of the World Cup final, I left the room on the second floor of the Football Cafe in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood, where I was watching the match along with a friend, a foot or so from Susan Sarandon (somehow), and ran up to the roof.

I have never been able to stomach watching penalties as a player or as a fan. It’s a trait I share with my father, who was once so rattled after the first few penalties while we were watching a match that he left to go to sleep because they were driving up his anxiety.

There is a photo of Pep Guardiola sitting in a chair with his arms folded, facing away from goal as his team took penalties. To me, that’s the only possible way to deal; that and the match had already exhausted me of emotion. Argentina had given up a two-goal lead after dominating for almost 80 minutes. The teams traded goals in extra time, but each time it seemed that Argentina had won, FranceKylian Mbappe in particular — would pull right back. I was already breathing hard, as if I had played 120 minutes as well. So, to avoid becoming an emotional mess, I ran up to the roof of the building, sat in one of the few seats there, folded my arms and looked out into the blue sky of Sunday afternoon.

The problem with trying to avoid the World Cup, especially in one of the biggest cities in the world, is that one would have to lock themselves in their apartment and avoid everything. Sitting on the roof, I was instead exposed to a different kind of anxiety. All around me, from the apartments nearby and the hundreds of people watching the match below me, were the sounds of the game. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. After every penalty, the world around me swelled with reaction, loud cheering mixed as well with groans of disappointment, which made it impossible to tell which team was doing well. Then my phone started vibrating with friends and family reacting to the makes and misses. The plan to avoid what was going on was failing spectacularly.

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Like millions of people around the world, I badly wanted Lionel Messi to win the World Cup. And because the sport of football, the absurd drama of it all, has a way of making one religious in the silliest way, I was sitting on the roof with my eyes closed, trying to focus my ears away from the sounds of the game and, deep inside my heart, asking God or any higher power who was open to being convinced that Messi be allowed the title that has eluded him his whole career.

There was nothing that I could bargain with. Instead, I was making the argument that it would make so many people happy. Knowing that God and the gods have more important things to worry about, I also started preparing myself for the bitterness of disappointment.

It was a similar bitterness and disappointment that I felt after Argentina lost their opening match against Saudi Arabia. I had gotten up at around 4 a.m. to be ready for the match at 5. After the first half — which Argentina dominated — and with the gulf in strength between the two teams, it seemed Argentina would score loads of goals in the second half. I dozed off at halftime in that knowledge. When I woke up deep into the second half, I looked at the score and, for at least five minutes, thought I was having some bizarre dream.

For the rest of the match, which would be remembered as the biggest upset of this World Cup, I kept thinking to myself, “This can’t be happening.”

There were many storylines for this tournament, but none bigger than the possibility of Messi finally winning the trophy in his last one. This was the stage to see whether he could pass the final hurdle. It was his World Cup, and because so many of us had become invested in his career, becoming fans because of his generational talent, millions of people were brought together under the same wish of hoping for him to achieve ultimate footballing happiness. We wanted him to win.



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Before the World Cup started, I watched an interview Messi had with Mariano Dayan of Olé, talking about his hopes for the World Cup and what made this Argentina team different from previous tournaments. He talked about the importance of winning the first match as a way to build confidence, about taking things one match at a time, and that he’s not superstitious at all: he gives his best and allows things to happen. Halfway through the interview, Dayan asked him if it would have been better for Argentina to lose before the World Cup, to end their long winning streak, so they could show how they responded to adversity.

“The truth is that the bad moments will surely come at some point,” Messi said. “I believe this team is prepared to face tough times.”

The bad moment came, and though a loss in the group stages isn’t always fatal, it was still hard not to panic.

It took until the ending of their game against Poland for a bit of relief to set in. Argentina was not only assured a place in the knockout rounds, but also finished top of the group. Things were going well, though relief is not relaxation. It’s impossible to relax during the World Cup, even when one doesn’t have a direct rooting interest. The competition can be so chaotic that until the last second of a match is over, everything feels possible. When one does have a direct rooting interest, the tournament feels like ingenious torture.

What the loss against Saudi Arabia also did was expose Argentina as vulnerable. They were defeated by two extraordinary goals, which could be reasonably written off as a bizarre event, but the World Cup has a penchant for making these kinds of bizarre events common. The loss was a football memento mori.

Their newfound vulnerability added additional tension and fear to every match. The matches against Mexico and Poland finished comfortably for Argentina, though they were anything but comfortable.

When Messi scored from 25 yards out against Mexico, I sent a friend a text saying that you can tell how frustrated he is because he doesn’t usually take those kinds of shots. His celebration felt like a great release of pressure. When Australia scored in the 77th minute in the round of 16, I was yelling at the players through the television, asking them why they can’t just do things the easy way, why every match has to be full of so much stress.

I was at the airport for Argentina’s quarterfinal against the Netherlands. The game was on almost every television. I watched part of it at a Buffalo Wild Wings; another traveler sat next to me, and when he asked the waiter to change one of the screens to something different, people around audibly groaned. Reading the room, he decided to leave.

Later on, I moved to a bar next to my gate to watch the rest of the match. When the Netherlands scored two quick and extraordinary goals, I put my head on the table and said loudly — enough that the guy next to me patted me on the back — that I couldn’t take it anymore. The match went into extra time and my flight was delayed. The more tense the match grew, the more annoyed I was at everyone around me. A guy casually laughing with his friend felt like a personal insult. There was nothing funny about what was going on.

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As penalties started, I was trapped. There was nowhere for me to run to. I was at the gate, the flight delayed suspiciously long enough for me to experience the rest of the match; all around me were TVs and hundreds of people all watching. The first two Dutch players missed their penalties, Messi and Leandro Paredes scored theirs, and the terminal exploded in cheers. It reminded me what I usually miss when I avoid watching matches with people: the communal joy. The sharing of happiness that elevates personal pleasure into something much bigger can feels elevating and overwhelming. The shared happiness makes the world feel lighter; it makes you want to share hugs and tears with strangers.

Then of course Enzo Fernández missed his penalty, and the tension and fear returned. This sport is always reminding us that joy and despair are often only separated by a single kick.

By the time Lautaro Martinez scored his penalty to win the match for Argentina, everyone else on my flight had boarded, and I was standing by the door looking at a TV from a distance. There was still time for the gate agent to close the door, and she found my emotional turmoil as funny as I found it excruciating.

The match against Croatia was much more secure, if secure is even a correct word for anything involving the World Cup. It was a 3-0 win that was unexpected, given how Croatia has embodied the idea that talent, hard work and endurance can overcome whatever their opponents might do. Argentina, seemingly knowing the danger of prolonging the match against them, thankfully ended things before it could get to extra time.



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One thing about the World Cup is that even if you’re someone like me who tries to avoid watching matches with other people, it’s hard to experience the event alone. The world around you is going through similar emotions. People build their schedules around the event.

One of these people was the first woman I ever fell in love with, during my first year of college in 2007. From the first match until the last, we were exchanging messages. We met a year after Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or and began his acceptance speech by making a radical declaration: “This award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona.”

“Leo Messi reminds me more of Maradona, both left-footed and short. Messi is the best player in the world,” he said. “Since he began to come and train with us and we knew we would go down this path. Someday I will explain that I was at the birth of one of the footballing greats: Leo Messi.”

The year after Ronaldinho made his bold statement, the woman I fell in love with made a similar one. She was a Barcelona and Messi fan as well, and one of the arguments we’d have was whether Messi was and would be better than Kaká. As an AC Milan fan, I adored Kaká the person and the player who interpreted football in such an elegant and ruthless way; it seemed ridiculous to suggest that someone would supersede him. Our argument stopped when she said we should check back years later, when Messi would not only be better than Kaká, but would be one of the best players of all time.

The next year, the Ballon d’Or was awarded to Kaká and history seemed to be on my side. Even among a roster of legends the club has had in its history, Kaká stood out to me. I loved the paradox of his play, a player whose style seemed to project directly from his gentle personality. He had a true elegance that came from both a mastery of technique — there was no flaw in his ability to control, pass or strike the ball, whether from close range or from distance — and the way that his personality expressed his understanding of the game.

The paradox was that as gentle as his movement, his control and the way he seemed to float above the blades of grass on the field were, Kaka was as tough and as destructive as his most ruthless teammates. One second, you could be enamored with his balletic feints, only to be caught off guard by a shot that threatened to tear the net. He was a man of God who played like he was an Old Testament punishment.

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Still, as much as I loved Kaká, I took an interest in Messi from that day forward. For one, because I knew he was good already — he ran circles around Nigeria at the Olympics in 2008 as a teenager — and I was curious to see if what she said would come true. To be a witness from the beginning would be a wonderful privilege. And two, because when you love someone, you want to engage with the things they hold dear as a way to keep them with you. Even as the years pass and the time spent together becomes a memory.

Of course, she was right. History vindicated her and Ronaldinho. Messi not only became better than Kaká but surpassed legends past and present. For so long, he was under the shadow of Diego Maradona, but he has now become one of a kind. I never thought he needed the World Cup title to own the position of best player ever, if such a thing exists, but having it now, there’s no argument left to deny him that position.

For almost two decades, Messi has won everything there is to win in the sport. He has produced some of the most incredible individual matches and seasons, and been part of some of the best teams of all time. He has been such an extreme instance of a great player that he has pushed the language that describes him into cliché. Even TV commentator Ray Hudson, who comes up with the most ridiculous and sensational descriptions of moments and players, could only keep going back to describe him as “magisterial.”

I’ve made the argument before that he’s been so spectacular for so long that it’s a disservice to talk about him as a whole. The best way to approach any analysis or appreciation of him is to separate him into his own personal eras, and then look at them individually — for example, false nine Messi is much different than early wide-forward Messi. He has transformed numerous times in his career, and each transformation, separated from the others and experienced in isolation, would still make an argument for being one of the best players of all time.

What I can say about Messi now, and why I desperately wanted him to win a World Cup, is that he is a gift to the sport.

What tends to annoy me so much about the narratives surrounding players like Messi, and the comparisons to past and present greats, is that as fun and easy as those arguments are to make and latch onto, it can sometimes cloud the true wonder of the sport. It seems to me that it would be better if athletes were judged as artists as well, so that we can see their great performances and seasons as the masterpieces that they are. Performances that we should sometimes stand in front of, without debating and trying to tear each down in comparison to another, and simply enjoy.

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What I adore about Messi is similar to what I adored about Kaká. He’s an artist who has interpreted the sport in such a phenomenal way that it has expanded the possibilities for wonder within it. His stats speak for themselves; what can’t be measured, and what he is also a master of, are those moments of awe. He did things routinely, and with ease, that others spent their whole careers chasing just once.

For almost two decades, whenever Messi got the ball, the possibility that something brilliant could happen wasn’t just a hope or ideal, but an assured thing. A pass, a feint, a nutmeg, a dribble, an assist, a goal. He could get the ball and beat four or five defenders, cutting through them at full speed, with hands all over him, and it would feel surreal. Until he then did it again. And again. And again. Or he’d make a pass that would leave even his most experienced and creative teammates speechless. Even as he got older and no longer had the speed and dribbling that were some of his best weapons, he transformed into an unassailable playmaker to continue his singular creative practice.

Within the confines of victories and losses, of chasing after trophies and building a legacy, he was expanding the physical language of the game. His legacy isn’t what he has won as an individual, but how he has changed what is conceivable when we talk about football.

Because of what he has done for football, I believed that football owed something to him — namely, that he should win the trophy that he has chased after for so long, the one that has led to so much heartbreak for him and Argentina. Of course, football doesn’t care about what’s fair or not, or who seemingly deserves a victory. The match against Saudi Arabia was a good reminder of that. You win what you win. It’s not a fairy tale.

Except when it is. At 35 years old, in his fifth tournament, Messi had his best ever performance in a World Cup. He scored in every stage, becoming the first player to ever do so. In the final he scored a brace, putting Argentina up before Mbappe refused to allow France to lose. Messi was a few minutes from potentially completing his career arc or having to live with being totally singular in the game despite failing to win its highest trophy. The story of the last two decades of football had arrived at its climax.

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In the end, Emiliano Martinez, Argentina’s giant of a goalkeeper — he once said of Messi, “I want to give him life, I want to die for him” — saved one penalty and France missed another. And that was it. The story was complete. The walls of the buildings around me were vibrating with excitement. I could hear hundreds of people singing Messi’s name from the floor beneath me, and I was so overwhelmed by joy that I ran back into the building and slipped trying to go down the stairs. Sprinting with a sore calf and ankle, I found my friend and grabbed him. I jumped up and down while yelling, “He f—ing did it!” over and over.

Hours later after the end of the match, I still felt drained, but sleep was impossible. All I wanted to do was turn on the TV and look through social media at all the celebrations. Not just Argentine people and Messi with his teammates, but people all over the world. So many were experiencing the same collective joy and relief, the same appreciation that a player who has given them so much was now able to end his career carrying the World Cup.

There’s no bigger testament to the power of sport, and to the impact that Messi has had on this sport, than the experience of the world seemingly coming together to celebrate his happiness.

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