Messi, Ronaldo and Soccer’s Golden Sunset

This World Cup will extinguish the light of a whole galaxy. It will, most likely, be the final time Luka Modric, Thiago Silva, Daniel Alves, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Jordi Alba, Ángel Di María, Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann will grace the grandest stage sports has to offer. Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale, Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez and James Rodríguez may yet join them, another clutch of superstars on a valedictory tour.

World Cups, of course, have always had that purpose. Just as they are the forge of greatness, they act, too, as the place it takes its bow. It is not especially unusual that players — as Silva and Alves, in particular, have — should continue their careers to ensure one more shot at the greatest prize of all. The 2006 World Cup final was Zinedine Zidane’s last ride, after all.

In that light, this World Cup is no different from any other. And yet the sheer numbers suggest something different; they give the impression that soccer will go into the tournament with one elite and emerge from it with quite another. That is not because there is a greater proportion of famous players at the end of their career than normal. It is because there are more famous players, full stop.

It is likely that the last 15 years will come to be seen almost exclusively through the lens of Messi and Ronaldo. They have, after all, dominated this era of soccer, and so it is fitting, in many ways, that they should come to define it.

Such an interpretation, though, would be reductive. It is better thought of, instead, as soccer’s first truly global age: an era in which fans across the world could watch almost every second of a player’s career, in which the great and the good encountered one another with unprecedented frequency in the Champions League and came into our homes through video games, a time when rare talent clustered together at a handful of superclubs.

The generation that will exit the stage in Qatar is the last bastion of the first generation of players who started and ended their journeys in that ecosystem; they are the equivalent of that bloom of mass, shared popular culture that germinated in the 1960s. Lewandowski is far more familiar, far more famous than Gerd Müller, his predecessor at Bayern Munich, ever was. More people will notice when Suárez retires from Uruguay than concerned themselves with Enzo Francescoli’s departure.