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The Last Hoorah – Lionel Messi, Tendulkar & Other Icons for Whom Hope Never Died

Lionel Messi and Sachin Tendulkar are among athletes who conquered the world in the last lap of their careers.

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(This article was first published on 20 December 2022. It is being re-published on 24 June 2023, on the occasion of Lionel Messi's 36th birthday).

What makes something stand the test of time?

Think of ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ The protagonist Andy Dufrense, a banker serving two life sentences for murders that he did not commit, goes through every aspect of the tellurian hell that prison is – harassment, betrayal, solitary confinement, you name it.

Eventually, the climax shows Andy escaping through a tunnel he had dug for 19 years. In an ideal world, Andy should not have been acquitted in the first place, but only for the hellish experiences will his character, and more importantly, the audience, truly cherish the heavenly taste of freedom.

Chances are high that Lionel Messi, Argentina’s football icon, has never heard of Tim Robbins, the actor who portrayed Andy. Beyond any doubt, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has absolutely zero similarities with Stephen King, the author who wrote the novel.

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Yet, on 18 December 2022, at Qatar’s Lusail Iconic Stadium, it seemed Messi is recreating the film. For he has had to walk through hell to experience the heaven he was now in – holding the shimmering FIFA World Cup trophy that many greats could only have dreamt of touching.
Lionel Messi and Sachin Tendulkar are among athletes who conquered the world in the last lap of their careers.

Lionel Messi won the FIFA World Cup in his fifth attempt.

(Photo: IANS)

Messi, Tendulkar and a Happy Ending

The incessant series of heartbreaks, which started way back in 2006, was finally over. The teardrops from yesteryears, which had seemingly dried up after repeated failures, appeared on the horizon again. This time, however, people gleefully cried a bucket, for it was sacrosanct.

Argentina had just defeated France on penalties to win the 2022 World Cup. They were world champions, and so was their charismatic leader, Lionel Messi. The comparisons, debates, and barrage of sceptic questions all came to an unceremonious halt.

The word was out – Lionel Andreas Messi will be immortalised. He will go down in history as the greatest footballer of his generation.

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As Messi was carried on the shoulders of his teammates, the visuals triggered Déjà vu for the cricket fans. 11 years ago, another icon having a similarly diminutive physical stature but gigantic sporting stature, who had carried the hopes of his nation for years, was carried by his teammates. 

India had just beaten Sri Lanka to win the ICC Cricket World Cup after 29 years.

The word was out – Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar will be immortalised. He will go down as the greatest cricketer of his generation.

History will merrily testify, countless laureates, playwrights and script writers will admit, that Messi and Tendulkar had unlocked the singular, most important aspect of standing the test of time – a happy ending.

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The Glee After the Gloom

It is not set in stone, but attend your nearest story-writing workshop and you’ll be taught about the easiest way of writing a gripping story – inculcating the ‘Three Act Structure.’

The first act establishes the protagonist, and why is he different from the other run-of-the-mill characters in the story.

Like Tendulkar did in 1992. Like Messi did in 2006.

The second act shows conflict, where the earth starts slipping under the feet, but there is nothing the protagonist can do about it. He is, but only a mere spectator of devastating chaos.

Like Tendulkar did in 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2007. Like Messi was in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

The third act shows the climax. Everything returns to normalcy, the protagonist is more powerful than ever before and he finally conquers the world, albeit after multiple attempts.

Like Tendulkar did in 2011. Like Messi did in 2022.

Lionel Messi and Sachin Tendulkar are among athletes who conquered the world in the last lap of their careers.

Lionel Messi had previously lost the FIFA World Cup final in 2014.

(Photo: PTI)

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Other Sporting Icons Who Went Out With a Bang

Only those who have experienced despondency will appreciate the true essence of Euphoria. This is what unites Messi and Tendulkar – two athletes playing distinctively different sports, representing distinctively different nations, but strikingly similar in everything else.

Tendulkar and Messi are not alone in the ‘happy ending club.’ The greatest leader Pakistan ever produced, purely in cricketing terms, Imran Khan might not have been a world champion if stayed true to his words.

Interestingly, Khan did a ‘Messi,’ three decades before Messi himself.

Following a disappointing exit from the 1987 ICC Cricket World Cup, the all-rounder decided to call curtains on his career. He was 35 at the time, and had given all he could to his nation. Or so he thought, just like Messi did in 2016, when he announced his retirement after Argentina’s Copa America final defeat.

But a request from the President himself was impossible to turn down. Khan returned, and lead Pakistan to the nation’s first-ever World Cup triumph in 1992.

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By 1996, then at the peak of his powers, tennis legend Pete Sampras had won four US Open men’s singles titles. In the Open Era, Jimmy Connors was the only player to have won five singles champions in the tournament – the record was well within Sampras’ reach.

But like every great athlete, his career graph took a dip. By 2002, Sampras might have started selecting post-retirement vacation destinations, but there was still one last grand slam to compete in, and one last record to equal.

The American not only won his fifth US Open men’s singles championship but did so by beating his biggest rival, Andre Agassi. His last competitive match engraved Sampras’ name in books of history.

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By the late 1990s, American gridiron footballer John Elway had already done enough to attain the status of a great. Yet, the lack of a Super Bowl triumph prevented him from entering the 'greatest' discussions.

Elway won his first Super Bowl aged 37, only to replicate the incredible achievement the next year.

In Formula 1, British driver Nigel Mansell won his first driver’s championship at 39 years of age – at the 12th time of asking. In ice hockey, Canadian player Ray Bourque won his first Lord Stanley’s Cup title in his 22nd season, aged 40.

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No Good Thing Ever Dies

Across various sports, we will find instances such as Messi, Tendulkar and Khan, who conquered the world in the last lap of their exemplary careers. Athletes, who were always great regardless of their accolades, but became greatest only after years of agonising wait.

Athletes who, despite their statistics often not justifying their unparalleled prowess, despite fortune often not smiling on them, despite every force on and beyond the earth often colluding against them, despite destiny often plotting their downfall, never parted ways with the solitary, theft-proof possession of human beings – hope.

In ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ Andy leaves a letter for his friend after his escape, whose lines are echoed in the stories of these athletes.

“Remember. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”

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