World Cup 2022 will herald a seismic changing of the guard

The likes of Ronaldo and Messi will likely lead a generation of talent taking its final bow on football’s greatest stage in Qatar

In the heady, innocent days of 2016 – before all of the largely dreadful things that have happened since had happened – Nick Serpell was given what was, by the standards of the time, a faintly morbid task.

As naive as it seems in hindsight, a theory had taken hold on social media – the place where all theories take hold – that the year was cursed. It had started, it seemed, with the death of David Bowie, and it did not stop. Alan Rickman died. Zaha Hadid died. Harper Lee died, and Leonard Cohen, and Johan Cruyff, and Muhammad Ali, and Prince.

Serpell’s job was to find out whether this really was unusual, or whether it was simply the effect of the public nature of grief in the social media age. As the BBC’s obituaries editor, he searched through the number of prepared obituaries that the broadcaster had published in the first three months of that year – the kind that all news organisations, including The New York Times, keep on file for a host of well-known figures – and then compared the total to the previous few winters.

There had, he found, been a considerable leap: From January to March 2012, for example, only five people deemed worthy of a prewritten obituary had died. It had been eight in 2013, 11 in 2014 and 12 the following year. By 2016, though, that number had skyrocketed: In the first three months alone, Serpell found, the BBC had run 24 ready-made tributes.

Serpell, though, remained unconvinced there was a curse; the explanation seemed to him to be far more prosaic. The apparent rise, he divined, was down to the fact that the world was now more than half a century on from the first great flowering of a shared popular culture – with the dawn of television, the growth of pop music and the global reach of Hollywood.

Though some of those who had died in early 2016 were distressingly young, many more had been in their 70s and 80s, the products of that blossoming of mass popularity. It was not that a greater proportion of prominent people were dying; it was that there was, 50 years or so after technology made some form of worldwide celebrity more attainable, a much deeper pool of prominent people who might die.

That phenomenon has an echo this year in a very different – and thankfully much less mournful – context. The 2022 World Cup will act as a profound watershed for soccer; it will, in a distinct, almost tangible way, mark the ending of one era and the start of another, a generational shift played out live on television.

That it will, almost certainly, provide the conclusion to the international careers of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo –assuming Portugal makes it past North Macedonia in its playoff final on Tuesday – 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 kafala-built fields of Qatar.

This World Cup 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, Angel Di Maria, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann will grace the grandest stage sports has to offer.

Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale, Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and James Rodriguez may yet join them, another clutch of superstars on a valedictory tour.

Last ride

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. It is not especially unusual that players – as Silva and Alves, in particular, have – should continue their careers to ensure one more shot at the greatest prize of all. The 2006 World Cup final was Zinedine Zidane’s last ride, after all.

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.

It is likely that the last 15 years will come to be seen almost exclusively through the lens of Messi and Ronaldo. They have, after all, dominated this era of soccer, and so it is fitting, in many ways, that they should come to define 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; they are the equivalent of that bloom of mass, shared popular culture that germinated in the 1960s.

Lewandowski is far more familiar, far more famous than Gerd Müller, his predecessor at Bayern Munich, ever was. More people will notice when Suarez retires from Uruguay than concerned themselves with Enzo Francescoli's departure.

That they have been so prominent for so long has as much to do with the scientific and medical advances available as their ability. There was a reason, a couple of weeks ago, that the two standout midfield displays in the Champions League, all indefatigable energy and irrepressible dynamism, came from Modric, 36, and Vidal, 34.

That level of performance, in that rarefied company, would not have been possible even 20 years ago; it has served to prolong their careers and, in doing so, expand their legacies.

Qatar, for many of them, will be their last stand. It will lend the tournament a faint air of sorrow. A whole generation, one that we have watched from the start, one that we have come to know like none before, one that has become part of the fabric of the game, will depart, all at once, and we will, at last, have to say goodbye.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.