KAZAN: It happened one night. Within six hours and 2000km apart, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo said goodbye to the World Cup, in all likelihood never to return.
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From being the cynosure of all eyes, isolation will be their next address, their journey to be the greatest of all time having ended abruptly on Saturday.
At the Kazan Arena, Messi looked on hopelessly as a certain 19-year old French kid pulled the carpet from under Argentina’s feet, sending the message that it was time to abdicate. Deep down south of Russia on the shores of Black Sea, Ronaldo’s galley failed to weather one more storm and sunk. Iran first plugged a hole in the portside and the Cavani typhoon finally pulled the ship down to the ocean bed.
The larger than life characters had become a personification of the game itself, overcoming the shrinking boundaries of their clubs and countries for almost 15 years now.
It was Messi’s fourth attempt to claim the biggest trophy of his career and the chase was more to put an end to the debate over the ‘greatest ever Argentinian’ tag. For the number of trophies Messi’s cabinet flaunts and the sheer delight he gave to the masses with his cultured left foot, Diego Maradona will still proclaim ‘l’etat, c’est moi (I am the state)’.
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Ronaldo’s fight was more with his own self, with an overbearing craving for all that is bold, beautiful and winnable. For all this theatrics, emotion has never been more than a put-on for Ronaldo who is blessed with a beast’s physique on which he worked endless hours in his quest to be the best. Strangely, for the last decade or so, these two have cornered all attention of the world with their subterranean race, be it for the top-scorer in their leagues, or their unbridled run towards acquiring domestic titles. Never though, did they come face to face in a continental tournament. Russia offered the world an opportunity to watch a ‘real fight’ in flesh and blood instead of the media triggered proxy wars. Had both won their round of 16 matches on Saturday, Argentina would have faced Portugal. The argument might have got some meat.
It was not meant to be. The inevitable was long way coming. One just needed to see the world in black and white – their powers are on the wane. Messi had prematurely announced his retirement after losing in the second consecutive Copa America final in 2016. He hid it under a deadpan veneer, but truth had struck him cruelly. Ronaldo, Messi’s alter-ego, had no such compunctions. The Portuguese will fight till his legs hold up or there is even a drop of sweat left in him. With all their superlative skills, and sharing of 10 Ballon d’Or titles, both failed to score in the knockout round of the World Cup in any edition. Messi played in one final and Ronaldo in one semifinal but the mother of all accolades eluded them.
Neither Messi nor Ronaldo’s influence elevated the game for Argentina or Portugal, despite their exhibition of skills. Against Uruguay, Ronaldo’s frustration, with shots getting blocked and Diego Godin’s unwavering attention, was there for the world to see.
Messi looked downcast under Ngolo Kante’s supervision as all his moves were nipped in the bud. The brilliant chip that made Sergio Ageuro’s day when all was lost for Argentina, marked Messi’s desperate attempt to leave the stage with a mark. But he had realized that carrying the nation on his shoulders was no more a plausible option.
Reputation has been the biggest casualty in Russia. It has added to the thrill and has opened the debating platform for Mbappe, Phillippe Coutinho, Quintero and Isco.
The lights of Luzhniki and Spartak will shine on the new actors now.