WORLD CUP 2022
THE GENIUS OF LIONEL MESSI JUST WALKING AROUND
The legendary striker can often be found off the ball, strolling and dawdling and looking mildly uninterested. Here’s what he’s actually doing.
On Sunday, a global audience of a billion plus will tune into the World Cup final to behold the most transfixing spectacle in sport: a small man walking back and forth. The Argentina-France match, at Lusail Stadium, in Lusail, Qatar, will be a showdown between two of the world’s great footballing powers that holds the potential for all sorts of thrilling action and endeavor. Will Kylian Mbappé, France’s superstar attacker, produce one of those runs to goal that leave wind-tossed defenders behind him, flapping like suits of clothes on a drying line? Will we see more clever, commanding midfield play from Mbappé’s teammate Antoine Griezmann, perhaps the tournament’s standout player? Or will the middle of the pitch be dominated by Argentina’s stubborn trio of Enzo Fernández, Rodrigo De Paul, and Alexis Mac Allister, with the moments of glory falling to Julián Álvarez, the twenty-two-year-old phenom who has slashed and pounced his way to four goals in his first World Cup?
Perhaps the match will provide all of the above. Yet the telling difference may be found in the least dramatic, least kinetic activity on the field. Sunday’s result might well turn, as so many games have before, on the meandering movements of Lionel Messi, who will spend much of the ninety minutes simply walking around—drifting here and there, wandering the field at the pace, and with the apparent dreamy purposelessness, of a flâneur on a psychogeographic dérive.
Messi is soccer’s great ambler. To keep your eyes fixed on him throughout a match is both spellbinding and deadly dull. It is also a lesson in the art and science of watching a soccer match. If you ask any astute observer—an experienced coach or player or tactically tuned-in analyst—how to understand the game, they will advise you to take your eyes off the ball. There may well be an analogous precept, with a German name, in philosophy or art history or mechanical physics. The idea is this: to apprehend the main thrust of the narrative, to really wrap your mind around what’s going on, you must shift your focus from the foreground to the background.
In soccer, the principle unquestionably applies. When you learn to bifurcate your brain, keeping an eye on the main action while devoting equal or greater attention to what’s happening off the ball, the game opens up to you. It is then that you begin to pick out trends and patterns: the positions that individuals are taking up in and out of possession, the shapes and formations that teams are assuming when they attack and defend, the spaces that are opening up on the pitch and the ways that the adversaries are, or aren’t, exploiting them.
And, if you happen to be watching a match featuring Leo Messi, you’ll notice that something on the order of eighty-five per cent of the time, he can be found off the ball, strolling and dawdling and looking mildly uninterested. It is the kind of behavior associated with selfish players, prima donnas who expend no effort on defense and bestir themselves only when goal-scoring opportunities arise. Messi, of course, is one of the most prolific scorers of all time, with a career total of nearly eight hundred goals in club and international competition. His penchant for walking is not a symptom of indolence or entitlement; it’s a practice that reveals supreme footballing intelligence and a commitment to the efficient expenditure of energy. Also, it’s a ruse—the greatest con job in the history of the game.
A famous aphorism, usually attributed to the Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque, sums up the subtly visionary play of the midfielder Sergio Busquets this way: when you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets—but when you watch Busquets, you see the whole game. Something related might be said about the great Argentinean: when you watch Messi, you watch him watching the game. Another manager, Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who coached Messi for four years at Barcelona, has described his walking, especially in the early stages of a game, as form of cartography—an exercise in scanning and surveying, taking the measure of the defense, noticing where the vulnerabilities lie, and calculating when and how opportunities might be seized. “After five, ten minutes, he’ll have a map in his eyes and in his brain,” Guardiola has said. “[He’ll] know exactly what is the space and what is the panorama.”
n other words, for Messi, walking is tantamount to seeing and thinking. But it is also crucial to the ways he turns analysis into action. His moseying about the pitch reconfigures and unlocks defenses: he trudges around, dragging opposing players with him, creating space for his teammates. As often as not, his ramblings also lull defenders into a state of torpor that leaves them vulnerable to Messi magic—those flashes of sorcery that erupt and wreak havoc with bewildering speed.
A fine example was Messi’s sixty-fourth-minute goal in Argentina’s group-stage clash with Mexico, a stunning strike from twenty-five yards out that salvaged the team’s then teetering World Cup campaign. Watching the replays of the goal—both the regular televised version and the bird’s-eye “tactical view”—you can see the fruits of Messi’s slow and sneaky maneuvering. While his teammates work the ball into the final third along the right wing, Messi arrives in the center of the pitch, slowing his jog to a leisurely stroll in an expanse of green grass so empty and unpeopled that he could have spread out a picnic blanket and uncorked his favorite Mendoza Malbec. Somehow, the most dangerous player in history has managed to slip, completely unmarked, into yards of open space with a clear sight of goal. It is surely no accident that the position Messi takes up prior to receiving a pass from Ángel Di María is parallel with the referee, who helps to camouflage Messi’s presence. By the time the Mexicans get wise to the situation, the shot has already fizzed into the net.
An analysis by the Athletic determined that Messi has walked more than any player at this year’s World Cup, an average of more than three miles per game. He walks more than ever these days, which makes sense. He is thirty-five; by walking three miles instead of running them, Messi is storing up his energy and lengthening his career.
But watching late-stage Messi, both in his day job for the French super-club Paris Saint-Germain and in his tournament appearances for Argentina, you can’t help but draw the conclusion that these off-ball movements are more about stealth than health. The standout moment of the World Cup came in Tuesday’s Argentina-Croatia semifinal, when Messi unleashed a jaw-dropping run down the right flank past the twenty-year-old defender Joško Gvardiol, culminating with a pass to Álvarez for an easy goal. For Messi, it was a throwback, a kind of cover version of his greatest hits from the circa-2010 Barcelona days, when he sometimes played on the right side and did a lot of unseemly humiliating of opponents with the ball bustling at his feet.
Perhaps it was also a foreshadowing. The cup title is the only triumph missing on Messi’s C.V., and the vibes are good; even the French may not be able to arrest Argentina’s momentum. In any event, that blazing run against Croatia was another study in the deceptiveness of the Messi saunter, which so quickly and punishingly can turn into a Messi sprint. He was, of course, just kind of loitering along the touchline when he gathered the ball and began twisting, rumbling, pausing, restarting, whirling, and finally powering past Gvardiol, before placing the ball on a salver for Álvarez to push in. It was epic, but Messi made it look easy, like a walk in the park. ♦︎
WORLD CUP 2022
QATAR GETS THE WORLD CUP FINAL IT PAID FOR
France meets Argentina, and the legacy of the tournament is cemented, for better or for worse.
On Thursday afternoon, I spoke to Asma, a young Qatari soccer fan who has been radicalized by the World Cup. Asma, who is in her mid-twenties, normally follows European club soccer, in the form of watching Real Madrid on TV. (Asma is a pseudonym.) The first soccer match she ever went to in person was the World Cup’s opening game, last month, a dispiriting defeat for the hosts. After that, Asma watched most of the tournament’s group stage from her home in Doha. When we first spoke, a couple of weeks ago, she was having trouble leaving the house because of all the games she wanted to catch. But, after witnessing some big upsets—Saudi Arabia’s early win over Argentina, Germany’s shock exit—Asma wondered what the ongoing World Cup experience was like in real life. “I was, like, ‘Maybe I should go to the matches. I should be there,’ ” she told me.
Tickets for the World Cup are hard to come by in Doha, but not so hard. Asma got her parents involved. She hit up her friends. She dabbled in the black market. She has been to eleven matches so far. When I talked with Asma this week, she had been to both semifinals, which kicked off at 10 P.M. local time, on successive nights. She sat way up in the rafters at Lusail Stadium to watch Argentina’s impressive 3–0 dismantling of Croatia. The next evening, she drove a half hour north of Doha, into the desert, to Al Bayt Stadium, for France’s tense, absorbing 2–0 victory over Morocco.
Like many other Qataris, Asma was backing Morocco, whose run to the semifinal was simultaneously the best-ever showing of an African team at the World Cup and a vehicle for pan-Arab pride—a strong theme of the tournament. Asma had good seats at Al Bayt (behind the French goal in the second half, when the Atlas Lions threatened to score an equalizer), and she was swept up in the non-stop Moroccan whistling and chanting. “Even, like, in the last three minutes, they did not stop cheering for Morocco,” Asma said. “There were some tears, but everyone was so proud. They were still shouting ‘Viva Maghreb’ outside of the stadium when the match was over, which I thought was very beautiful.” She didn’t get home until 2:40 A.M.
Mixing with thousands of soccer fans isn’t exactly routine behavior in Qatari society, particularly for young women. But the fun of being in partisan crowds has proved addictive. “I just don’t want to miss a match if I have the chance,” Asma said. She liked to get to games early, to take photographs, yell encouragement, and have short, knockabout conversations that would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago. “Because why would I interact with random strangers in Doha?” Asma said. “It barely ever happens.” The World Cup, for a few weeks, has turned ordinary Qatari social customs upside down. “Now it’s just, like, Why aren’t we speaking? Let’s talk if we are walking in the same direction,” Asma said. “Let’s just talk. And then, if you see someone wearing a team jersey, you’re, like, ‘Vamos!’ Or ‘Viva Maghreb!’ . . . If you see someone walking past you and you don’t speak, it’s weird. Everything flipped.”
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As an approachable Qatari woman, Asma has found herself fielding questions about her country from curious foreign fans. She said, “I think everyone that comes to any Arab country has this question in the back of their minds: How does it work?” At one match, a Brazilian visitor asked her if it was normal for Qatari men to have four wives. (In 2015, around eight per cent of Qatari marriages were polygamous.) “I’m happy to answer them,” Asma said. “It is what it is. My grandfather had more than one wife.” Like Asma, her friends were hunting for tickets. If they couldn’t get to a game, they headed to an outdoor screen or a restaurant, choosing the company of strangers over the familiarity of watching at home. “I did not think Qataris were that much fun,” Asma said. “Honestly, I didn’t think we were. I don’t think we thought we were.” I asked Asma what it was going to be like after the World Cup ended. “What am I going to do? It’s going to be so sad,” she said. “There’s a running joke that we’re all going to be very depressed and the state has to pay for therapy for every single citizen.”
It has been an excellent World Cup. There have been surprises: Morocco’s adventure, Japan’s swagger through the group stage, Croatia’s steely progress, which knocked out Brazil. (Outside the Arab teams, Asma had placed all her hopes on Brazil. When the Seleção lost on penalties last Friday evening, she took to her bed.) There have been non-surprises: Cristiano Ronaldo becoming the first player to score at five World Cups, then claiming a goal that he did not score, then falling out with his coach. There have been a hundred and sixty-three goals—eight short of the record, achieved in France, in 1998, and in Brazil, in 2014—with two games still to go.
My favorite goal was probably Richarlison’s overhead goal for Brazil against Serbia, for its three vivid touches of the ball: Rodrygo’s impudent, outside-of-the-boot cross; Richarlison’s first dab, to set himself; and then the third, balletic sweep into the net. The joy of tidying up. But there was also a strange beauty to Vincent Aboubakar’s vertical scoop over the head of Vanja Milinković-Savić, Serbia’s goalkeeper, during its riotous draw with Cameroon, while Luis Chávez’s free kick for Mexico against Saudi Arabia was like the arc of the moral universe—very long indeed. In among the goals, there were some fascinating, deeply watchable contests. The quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina was a gigantic, three-course meal of a match, bursting with goals, bad tempers, and an ingenious, hundred-and-first-minute Dutch equalizer, scored straight from a practice routine. (The match took place a couple of hours after Brazil’s defeat. Asma, who was in her room, stricken, glanced at the final minutes on her phone. When the second Dutch goal went in, she ran down the hall and woke up her mother.)
Qatar now has the final that it craved. If you spend more than two hundred billion dollars staging a World Cup, Argentina versus France in front of eighty-eight thousand fans feels like what you were paying for. Two storied teams, blessed with two leading lights: Lionel Messi, the Argentinean captain and maestro, and Kylian Mbappé, the explosive young French forward. Messi and Mbappé are the World Cup’s top scorers, with five goals each. They are also already on the Qatari payroll. In their day jobs, they are the stars of Paris Saint-Germain, France’s most successful soccer team and an asset of Qatar Sports Investments.
Messi, in particular, has been playing on the red carpet this tournament. At times, it feels like nobody wants to stop him from lifting the trophy on Sunday. Other times, it looks like he is ready to grab it himself. After Argentina scraped home against the Netherlands, he delayed a TV interview to fix a manic stare at Wout Weghorst, the scorer of the two Dutch goals, and growl, “¿Qué miras, bobo?” (“What are you looking at, fool?”) (The Spanish version is more wounding, somehow.) In the semifinal, Messi’s run to set up Argentina’s third goal against Croatia was a twisting, syncopated dance of dozens of instinctive, unthought steps. He didn’t look up. He just swerved, in all directions of the compass, executing the pure, childlike art of having a soccer ball and not wanting to give it to anybody else, until his fellow-forward, Julián Álvarez, showed up and Messi slid him the ball so he could stick it in the net.
Mbappé is nearly twelve years—three World Cups—younger than Messi. He operates in shorter, equally intricate bursts, as if he had acquired a set of cheat codes to the left-hand corner of the penalty box. Toward the end of Wednesday’s semifinal, Morocco was the likelier team to score, until Mbappé got into his favorite wriggle zone, on the edge of the penalty area, and quick-stepped his way through a crowd of defenders. His shot spun off into the path of Randal Kolo Muani, a French substitute, who scored the game’s decisive goal.
The avid focus on Messi and Mbappé and their performances does a disservice to their many redoubtable teammates, but it allows them to flourish, too. For Argentina, Álvarez has grown into a marauding match-winner in his own right, while the team’s wingbacks, Marcos Acuña and Nahuel Molina, gallop up and down the flanks, causing havoc. If France wins its third World Cup in twenty-four years on Sunday, and becomes the most successful team of the modern era, that will have a lot to do with the industry of Aurélien Tchouaméni, a twenty-two-year-old midfielder, who has played a third of his entire international career in Qatar. The other revelation for Les Bleus has been the selfless excellence of Antoine Griezmann, the talented forward who is playing as a makeshift midfielder, knitting together the play from deep. In 1998, when the current French coach, Didier Deschamps, lifted the World Cup as the team captain, his nickname was Le Porteur d’Eau, or the water carrier, for his unglamorous tackling and passing. Griezmann is doing the same job, but with very different élan; he’s more of a serveur de cocktail.
The final will take place at Lusail Stadium, on the northern edge of Doha, on Sunday afternoon. Asma will be there. She got her ticket, up high, in one of the corners, not long before we spoke. Through a complex sequence of shifting loyalties—out of loyalty to Brazil, and in opposition to Messi, for his Barcelona connections—Asma will be supporting France. She explained that most of her friends and family can’t bring themselves to cheer for a Western team, on account of the criticism that Qatar received in the years before the tournament, for its labor-rights record and its homophobic and transphobic laws. “Every time there’s a match, my grandmother is praying and praying against every single European team. So is my aunt,” Asma said. “Which is very funny to me, given that we all vacation in Europe, like, every single holiday.”
The moral trade-offs involved in staging the World Cup in Qatar will always be part of this edition’s legacy. The very fabric of the tournament—the seats, the stands, the turf, the Doha skyline—is a monument to a vicious and often dehumanizing strain of global capitalism. “Death is a natural part of life, whether it’s at work, whether it’s in your sleep,” Nasser al-Khater, the chief executive of Qatar 2022, said last week, when he was asked about a Filipino contractor who slipped and died while fixing lights in a car park at a hotel used by the Saudi team. Last week, a twenty-four-year-old Kenyan security guard named John Njau Kibue died in the hospital from injuries sustained in a fall at Lusail Stadium after Argentina’s quarterfinal. The world came to Doha, to work and to play and to suffer. The soccer was pretty good, too. How the tournament will alter those who left their homes, and the ordinary patterns of their lives, even for a short time, to go and see it, is a question that is probably too large and subtle ever to have a satisfactory answer. Asma remembered watching the World Cup final in 2018, when France beat Croatia by four goals to two in Moscow. “I always thought, Oh, my God, to be in that final celebration,” she said. “And now it’s so close to happening.” If Argentina wins, she explained, she will probably slip away, to beat the traffic. But, if France wins, that’s another story. “I just told my mom, I might not be home that day,” Asma said. “Be ready.” ♦︎