It was Jorge Luis Borges who wrote about ‘the infinite game’. “When the players have gone away, when time at last consumes them, the ritual is certainly not over.” This line was then borrowed by Argentine novelist and football lover Juan Sasturain in a documentary following the defeat of the club of his heart, Boca Juniors, to Intercontinetal in Japan. More recently, Jorge Valdano used the concept to title his latest book on football, The Infinite Game, paying homage to his fellow writers in recognising that one result does not forever tip the scales of anything one way or another: the ball rolls and keeps on rolling.
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Yet, there is a very definite sense of end to this particular Argentina exit from the World Cup, a finiteness that has perhaps more to do with an era in the country’s long football history. It goes beyond the adventures and misadventures in this tournament in particular and refers, rather, to the bowing out of a group of young men (though not as young as the French counterparts that dispatched them) who have been the emblems of the country’s international appearances for over a decade. Messi himself, the leading light, the hyped up enigma, may actually not be exiting the stage forever. What will happen to him and his relationship with Argentina only time will tell. But Mascherano and Biglia said their goodbyes pitch-side after the match against France. Agüero made reference to younger generations stepping up, while Di Maria and Higuain were considered to be at international retirement point before the competition started.
It was a dignified last stand; a riveting match with the right doses of suspense, end to end chances: the youth, speed, and potency of the young French warriors in stark contrast to the aging Argentina’s hunger to remain in the game. “Something happens out of nothing,” Didier Drogba told British TV audiences at half-time, clearly as mesmerised and fascinated both by Mbappe’s run as by Di María’s clinical precision. Most of us watching were.
“It’s a fascinating game,” Jurgen Klinsmann, his copundit agreed, “the way Di Maria changes the energy, changes the momentum…”
For that is football. A to and fro of abilities and strategies, telling a story and many stories at once. “Our executioner is 19 years old?” asked an Argentine on twitter as our end came nigh, perhaps echoing the slight excitement many felt as the future unfolded before our eyes.
Some games earn their place in long-term memory and this France v Argentina will undoubtedly be remembered as the time when Kylian Mbappé emerged, fresh and rested, faster than Usain Bolt, able to use his speed as a chess player, just as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exited the World Cup stage.
But for Argentina this final curtain should pin-point the beginning of serious questions that need to be addressed. Many will ask for manager Sampaoli’s head, many more will want to vent their frustration over individual names — should Dybala and Lo Celso been used more? — and the perennial debate over Messi’s Argentinianness, Messi’s “messiness”, will no doubt ensure for all eternity.
But if one thing was made clear throughout the qualifying stages, the group stage, and the final match in the knock-out round. It’s that lack of work and preparation, at an institutional level, cannot be replaced by desire and emotional determination.
We have been pondering what Messi needs to be happy, what kind of manager/team/position/formation would make Messi thrive like he does at Barcelona, but it’s disingenuous to deny the importance of a serious infrastructure to sustain the system.
If the real Lionel Messi was an unknown quantity before the World Cup started, no light was shed by the four games played in Russia 2018. The pre-World Cup preparations marred by a diplomatic fiasco over the cancellation of a friendly in Jerusalem led to speculation that Messi had been behind this. The shocking draw against Iceland when Messi missed a penalty led to speculation that the next match had finally seen Sampaoli impose his will over Messi’s and insist, for the first time, on his preferred threeat-the-back line-up. The response to the disaster against Croatia led to speculation that Messi was now the manager.
Throughout, Messi has remThroughout, Messi has remained silent. The image of him standing impervious as the French players came up to hug him, Messi swaying just so under the warm arms of Pogba, and then equally detached from the embrace of his own team-mates… that to me is the enduring enigma of this extraordinary player. Perhaps he truly is from another planet.
We cannot write him off just yet. The game is infinite, and he still has much to offer. But without a doubt this last lonely walk on the green grass of Russia’s playing field symbolises the end of a generation of Argentine football that came close, oh so close, but not quite there.