Lionel Messi, the brightest star of a footballing generation, will live out the twilight of his World Cup career at Qatar 2022, alongside a host of other legendary Latin American stars.
The inexhaustible genius of Messi, the PSG and Argentina forward, the goalscoring power of Uruguay's Luis Suárez and Édinson Cavani, and the luxurious assists and mazy dribbles of Angel Di María have dominated the continent for a generation, equalling the giants of Europe such as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Croatia's Luka Modric, among others.
"They are such good players all of them, they have lasted so long at the top at world level that it seems their era never ends," Greece coach Gustavo Poyet told AFP.
But the years dp pass by for idols. Starting November 20, Qatar will become the battleground for several veterans in their last big act.
Surely "other characters and other greats will emerge, but we are certainly going to lose a very good generation," agreed former Brazilian player Careca, Diego Maradona's partner in the Napoli side that won the Calcio in the 1980s.
With Messi, his friend and former Barcelona team-mate Suárez and Cavani all aged 35 and Di María just a year younger, the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico seems too far away.
That is "a plus in the head,” argued Poyet. “It's going to be noticeable that these players have that extra desire, knowing that in normal conditions this will be their last World Cup.”
All eyes on Messi
Messi, mature and at the top of his game, is the region’s greatest star. With his magical left foot, Argentina’s playmaker came close to matching the late Diego Maradona's feat at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but Germany snatched the trophy from his grasp in the final. Four years later, in 2018 in Russia, the Albiceleste crashed out in the last 16 to eventual champions France on an afternoon when Kylian Mbappé shone.
In Qatar, Argentina–- who make their debut on November 22 against Saudi Arabia in Group C, before facing Mexico and Poland – will go for their third title under coach Lionel Scaloni and led by a "more mature, much more collective" Messi, Argentine journalist and writer Ezequiel Fernández Moores told AFP.
The former FC Barcelona star arrives with "an approach that has some point of contact with Maradona in ’86," Fernández Moores said. In that tournament, Maradona put together masterful performances to win the Albiceleste their second World Cup, following on from their first, secured on home soil in 1978.
The World Cup "is tremendous, it's very difficult … that's why I always leave it aside" when assessing the career of a great player, says Poyet.
However, the Uruguayan coach admits that like many football fans he was "worried" that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two leaders of his generation, would not win anything with their national teams.
For Messi, worry that was left behind in Brazil 2021, when Argentina lifted the Copa América against the home side at the Maracanã. Cristiano Ronaldo won the European Championship with Portugal in 2016.
"Winning the World Cup would be a plus but Messi is going to be in history, everyone is going to compare himself to Messi in the next 30 or 40 years," said the former Uruguayan national team player.
Fernández Moores went even further and recalled a jocular popular comment: "If Messi doesn't win a World Cup, screw the World Cup.”
Away from the great heights of Messi, Argentina’s talisman, many more from the golden generation are preparing to bid farewell to football’s greatest stage.
"Messi is in great form, the rest seem to me to be big unknowns," considers Fernández Moores.
Di María, whose goals and assists had taken him across several European giants (Benfica, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain) before joining Juventus, suffered a injury at the end of October and will arrive in Qatar with doubts about his fitness.
The same doubts are growing for Valencia's Cavani, who is suffering from an ankle injury.
Suarez – La Celeste's all-time leading scorer, followed by Cavani – left room for speculation with his decision to leave Europe and join Nacional de Montevideo in the run-up to the World Cup.
Emboldened by winning the Uruguayan Championship with the team that formed him, the 'Pistolero' will have to prove that he is still at the level of the game’s elite strikers.
The Uruguayans won the Copa América 2011 in Argentina, a year after finishing in fourth place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
In Qatar, without 'Maestro' Oscar Tabarez on the bench (he has been replaced by Diego Alonso), they are going to surprise with a squad tinged with renewal, featuring midfielders Federico Valverde (Real Madrid) and Rodrigo Bentancur (Tottenham), and striker Darwin Nunez (Liverpool).
‘Ney' and doubts
Still younger than Messi and Suárez, with whom he formed a luxury trident at Barça, Brazil’s Neymar surprised some by warning recently that at 30, he cannot be sure he will play in another World Cup.
"I want to play as if this were my last World Cup," the PSG striker told Brazil's Globo network. His side is searching for their sixth world crown.
Tite dismissed the reports and played down Brazil’s chances. Though his side has not won the title since 2002, they are clearly among the favourites, as are Messi’s Argentina.
Qatar 2022, it seems, will be remembered as the farewell cup for a golden generation.