Rory Smith

Credit…Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

That this World Cup will, almost certainly, provide the conclusion to the international careers of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has long been assumed. Their starlight is so bright, though, that it has served to obscure all of the other farewells that will come on the migrant-built fields of Qatar.

This tournament 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 and Gareth Bale may yet join them, part of the 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.

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.

And while it is likely that the last 15 years will come to be seen almost exclusively through the lens of Messi and Ronaldo, the two players who have defined 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.



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