With both Argentina and Portugal qualifying for the World Cup, the two legends, Messi and Ronaldo will once again take home the sport's biggest prize -- perhaps, and most likely for the last time.
One of the common experiences that ties fans from all sports together is that they have to face a clear head when it comes to the age of them and that of their favorite players.
The rising stars of the game that often appear at the same time may seem like children, while the demigods that initially attracted you to the sport fade away. Essentially, the experience of witnessing a superstar athlete becomes a less creepy version of Matthew McConaughey's famous line from "Dazed and Confused": "I get older and they stay the same age."
But as the World Cup approaches, two stars who seem ageless for exciting and bewildering us have begun to confront their futures.
While Cristiano Ronaldo appears to be using a Tom Brady-Esque gimmick to challenge the aging process, the Super Bowl of international soccer is not held every year, but every four years (though FIFA has been flirting with cutting that in half). And with Ronaldo just turning 37, one very obvious piece of hardware is still missing from his trophy cabinet.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi will turn 35 this summer. In 2014, the Argentine star scored an extra-time goal for Germany and could be enjoying World Cup glory. But last summer, Messi won his first trophy with the Albiceleste first team at the Copa America, and everyone knows that the late Diego Maradona accomplished on the World Cup stage while Messi still has not.
Now, we have to start recognizing that these legends may soon be heading for World Cup sunset - and that ship will likely come ashore from an artificial beach in Qatar.
In early April, after Argentina's 30th consecutive game without a loss, Messi may be in the headlines for his comments about his future, but he's simply stating the obvious.
"I don't know what I will do after the World Cup," Messi said. "I'm thinking about what's coming. After Qatar, I'm going to have to reassess a lot of things."
Messi has already retired from the national team once after losing the 2016 Copa America Centenario on penalties, but only for a short time. Considering the emotion and heartbreak of losing another final, the announcement was incredible. But Saturday's comments had a different meaning, mainly because we can now start to imagine a stadium without him on the field. After all, we've already had to deal with seeing the Barcelona stripe on him without a tattoo.
Speaking about his future on Monday, Ronaldo offered a more blunt response, as if he could fight age with his trademark work ethic that transcends age: "If I want to play, I'll keep playing. If I don't, , I won't."
If anyone at 41 (Cristiano Ronaldo's age at the 2026 World Cup) can make a significant contribution to the World Cup, Ronaldo is likely to be a figure given his famous work ethic and fitness level. He just needs to take Zlatan Ibrahimovic as an example. The AC Milan striker all but helped Sweden book a ticket to Qatar at the age of 40 before losing to Poland in Tuesday's playoff final.
But when asked about his future, it was also Ibrahimovic who gave the most nuanced answer, which could conceivably apply to Messi and Ronaldo.
"I don't want to regret stopping football and say I can keep playing football because then I will regret it for the rest of my life because I can keep playing," Ibrahimovic told UEFA.com. "I play as long as I want. The reality is I'll keep playing until I see someone better than me, so I'm still playing."
But with their age and the loss that could take another four years, it's hard to imagine both Messi and Ronaldo being at the 2026 World Cup, or at least the stars of their entire national team. The idea alone is what makes the upcoming World Cup special, not because it will be another chapter in their intertwined story - aside from individual rivalry at the club level, their teams are in 2018 playing on the same day as the World Cup - but because that might actually be the last time we'll see these two icons on the same stage fighting for a grand prize that neither won. The fact that one could take that dream away from the other in a potential knockout match makes the 2022 World Cup even more enjoyable.
But instead of marking the 2022 World Cup as the last dance, it would be better to think of it as a jubilee or something, just as countries commemorate the reign of a monarch. For the pair, it will be their fifth World Cup appearance in their careers and will be full of memories and poignant moments. Perhaps the most uplifting element of what's to come, however, is what we haven't seen yet from this duo, but it was on full display during their first World Cup in 2006.
Sixteen years ago in Germany, when these two talents made their debut on the sport's biggest stage, a model of what they would reach (and arguably transcend) heights was leaving. Despite Italy's victory in the thriller, Zidane left a lasting image of the tournament as he strode past the trophy after his infamous red card. It's another prime example of how superstars will go all out when they know it could be -- or, in Zidane's case, will be -- their last shot at another piece of glory.
The thought alone is enough to make any football fan think about the desperation and drive Ronaldo and Messi will show in Qatar. A 50-50 scramble for the ball, brawls at corners, gasps before free-kicks, or a dizzying hellish run from their final third into the opposition box. Just imagine how in the final 30 minutes of a potential knockout game (or final) with Argentina or Portugal tied or behind, that alone would push Messi and Ronaldo to summon every fiber of theirs to lead their way. The team wins. Then imagine stoppage time, and the ticking seconds and beating heartbeat before the final whistle.
Think about that moment and immerse yourself in it as it draws near, like glory or more heartbreak will follow, likely the last on the World Cup stage. All can lose, but only one can win; even though we're months away from finding out which one will happen, the idea is enough to get us excited.
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