There are very few moments in the history of the world that can unite entire generations in admiration. At the top of this very short list, you will find the moon landing. A few lines down, but still on the same page, you’ll see an athletic feat of rare brilliance: say, Usain Bolt breaking the sound barrier in the Olympic 100m final. These are the times when human civilization comes together and says, its voice brimming with wonder and perhaps a little fear, “God, we didn’t think our species was capable of this. Before our eyes, our species has evolved. The moment of evolution that I remember most clearly in my life happened in an airport lounge a quarter of a century ago, as I waited for a flight back to London from Boston. There, standing at the back of a crowd of mostly white men, I saw them gape in front of a small television screen, their faces glassy with a kind of religious euphoria. On this screen was a tall young man striding forward, his limbs slender and tense, raising his fist in the air, as if dismissing any idea of what his sport believed possible. It was April 13, 1997, and the man was Tiger Woods. At just 21, he was utterly dominating one of the most revered tournaments in world golf: the Augusta Masters, a club that had only admitted its first black member seven years earlier. Woods, in front of a record television audience in the United States, won the Masters by an astonishing margin of 12 shots, a mark that still stands. On that day, golf had changed forever.
All sports need to evolve, and nothing delights us more than the emergence of a new star. The World Cup is essential in this regard as it offers an instant climb to greatness like no other. Just four years ago, Kylian Mbappé was best known to those who saw him play for Monaco in the UEFA Champions League, but he was not a global phenomenon. Everything changed in Russia, where his four goals helped France to victory; today he has the highest salary of any footballer in the world. While any new star would have to do extraordinary things in Qatar to match Mbappe’s rise, the one thing we can guarantee is that we’ll see someone picked this month to rock the entire planet for the first time.
New stars must announce themselves with at least a romantic act, if not a decisive one: for a full impact, it must be both. In the simply romantic category we have Michael Owen’s spectacular sprint and surge in England’s eventual loss to Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. On both sides we have the dribbling of Roberto Baggio’s baffling grace and finish in Italy’s 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia in 1990, when Baggio used such a seductive swerve that the nearest defender, despite being within only 2 meters, completely lost sight of him.
The most intriguing thing is what the new star will do next, as flourishing over the course of a few weeks at the World Cup is a notoriously unpredictable indicator of how the rest of their careers will unfold. Owen went on to win the Ballon d’Or as Europe’s best footballer before multiple injuries robbed him of his speed forever, and Baggio was subsequently named World and European Player of the Year. Yet James Rodríguez, scorer of the tournament’s goal in 2014 and winner of the World Cup Golden Boot, had only intermittent success in subsequent seasons, one of the weak points being his failure to come off the bench in the 2015-16 Champions League final.
The most poignant new star of all is Mario Götze, the man who scored the winning goal for Germany in the 2014 World Cup final aged just 22. the football gods give you too much, too soon: since then his form has gone from fairly good to average, and although he has won several medals and a lot of money, he has not become the player promised by his first talent. Yet to take a closer look is to understand that we have no right to expect years of consistent brilliance from anyone on the world stage. The pressure is just too severe; the likelihood of significant injury or other ailments (in Götze’s case, a rare muscle disorder) is just too great. On the contrary, the new stars remind us how fragile the conditions for continued excellence are. Just as novelists can have only one Gatsby the magnificent Where Kill a mockingbird in them, footballers can only have one majestic campaign where they can say: “Look, that’s when I captivated the whole world.” To which they can quickly add: “And who can do that, even once?”
In Götze’s case, the ending is happy as he returns to the World Cup with his first inclusion in a German squad in five years. He’s something of a footballing Ulysses, having finally found his way back to the biggest stage of them all after wandering among slightly smaller islands in the world game. However many minutes he plays in Qatar, he will have a ringside seat for what will hopefully be football’s next Evolution Moment: the first time we see the new Owen or Mbappé breaking the parameters of the football as we know it, burning through its confines to a future of unimaginable joy.