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At the World Cup, Lionel Messi may finally be coming home

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When you hear about Lionel Messi, there's often this word attached to his name, arguably, as in arguably the best soccer player in the world or arguably the best who has ever played the game. And for soccer fans, the debate about whether we can once and for all erase that term arguably depends on one single fact - whether Lionel Messi ever raises the golden, the mythical FIFA World Cup. Tomorrow, Messi will lead Argentina in the first semi-final of the World Cup in Qatar against Croatia, a team that lost the final to France four years ago. And to talk about the game and a whole lot more, we're now joined by Jasmine Garsd, who's host of the NPR Futuro Studios podcast The Last Cup, which follows the life and legacy of Lionel Messi. Jasmine, welcome.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. OK. There is so much that I want to talk to you about, but, first, I just want to do a little emotional check-in. Front to friend here, how are you feeling ahead of tomorrow's game?

GARSD: I'm not well.

(LAUGHTER)

GARSD: I'm just not well. Look. There's no easy games anymore. You know, everyone who's playing right now is amazing. Every team is wonderful. And Croatia is just a fantastic team. And it's a joy to watch them play. And we're playing well, too. And I'm very nervous. I expect to watch a lot of it in between my fingers.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: And I just have to ask you, how happy are you that Brazil was knocked out in the previous round?

GARSD: No, I love the Brazilian team. I have nothing but love for our neighbors. I like watching good soccer, and Brazil is always good soccer. I also love, like, kind of an underdog story. So - and I think Croatia, like, wow, I don't think a lot of people expected Croatia or Morocco. And that's just what makes this tournament so exciting. I was sad to see Brazil go, and I would have loved to see a Brazil-Argentina. That's, like, the classic rivalry. It would have been fun.

SUMMERS: So your podcast, The Last Cup, touches on a number of themes, but there's this sense of urgency, like, even in the name, that this might be Messi's last chance to win a World Cup. So how high are the stakes for Messi in this tournament?

GARSD: Well, he's said that this is his last World Cup. I mean, there's rumors about what soccer club he's going to go to next. There's been rumors about Inter Miami FC. He is one of the best players in the world and in soccer history, and he's never won a World Cup. This is his last chance. And I think there's definitely - that's one of the big narratives that has emerged from this World Cup. This is his last chance to do it.

SUMMERS: So Messi relocated from Argentina to Barcelona in Spain at age 13, and he went on to win every single possible championship with Barcelona FC. He had a choice, though, to represent Argentina or Spain, and he chose Argentina. And for Messi, earning the respect and the love of Argentina's fans seems to mean quite a lot. Why is that?

GARSD: Well, I think, you know, in many ways, Messi's story is a classic immigrant's journey. You know, he leaves at a very young age, in large part because, you know, Argentina has an economic and political collapse. In 2001, it was a very severe crisis. He and his father go to Spain. The rest of his family stays behind. And he goes on to do these amazing things. You know, he becomes an international soccer hero, beloved in Spain and in the world.

But his dream - he's always looking back at his home country, Argentina, and thinking, you know, my dream is to come back and win for my home team. And in many ways, I think this parallels a lot of immigrants' journeys, you know, where you leave because you have to leave, but you're always kind of looking back and yearning. And you have a nostalgia and a melancholy and a desire, a fantasy, of someday coming back home triumphant. That's not what happens.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: So if you don't mind, I want to get a little bit nerdy here and get into the weeds of soccer for a second.

GARSD: Sure.

SUMMERS: In The Last Cup, you talk about how in Argentina, maybe even in Latin America as a whole, people play soccer differently than in Europe. And that's something that's been tricky for Messi. What's the difference? Why is that?

GARSD: Well, Latin American soccer, South American soccer is very unique. It's a bit individualistic. It's been described to me as like jazz, you know? It's like there's a lot of improvisation and riffing and magic. It's also kind of like do or die, I think. In South America, you know, when you're playing soccer, you're playing for the glory, but a lot of times, you're also playing to get your family ahead and out of a difficult situation. And if South American soccer is jazz and improvisation, European soccer, it's very synchronized and planned out and almost like orchestral, you know? Everything has a role, and it's very technical. And so, yes, when Lionel Messi, he when he arrives in Spain as a kid, they're absolutely wowed by him. He's just extraordinary. But there's, like, this constant fight, which is, listen; you got to pass the ball. You know, you're not, like, the Lone Ranger out here on the field. This is a team, and this is how we're going to do it.

Ironically, when he gets a little older and he goes back to play with the Argentina national team in competitions like the World Cup, almost immediately his coaches are like, what's up with all this ball passing (laughter)? Almost immediately, his coaches are like, he's not playing with, like, the punk rock, with the edge, you know, with the this is do or die, this is street soccer. He's playing like a kid from Spain. And this is an identity conflict. This identity conflict follows him throughout his whole career. He's always kind of straddling in between.

SUMMERS: So, Jasmine, I want to end our conversation with the secret that you share at the end of The Last Cup. And I hope I'm not giving too much away because people should listen to all of it. But it's the secret about the idea of going home, going home for Messi, going home for migrants, going home probably for anyone who's ever left their hometown. So if you could just let us in on that secret, what is it?

GARSD: I became really obsessed when I was doing this podcast with the idea of going back home, which is ultimately what I think Messi's dream has always been. I actually picked up a copy of my auntie's "The Odyssey." You know, and "The Odyssey" is this tale - right? - about this guy who leaves home, a young guy leaves home, achieves amazing feats abroad. He becomes a hero abroad. And the whole time, he dreams of coming back home a hero. I don't want to ruin "The Odyssey" for anyone, but that's - he goes back home, and everything has changed. Home is no longer the way he remembered it, and neither is he. He's changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FITO PAEZ SONG, "Y DALE ALEGRIA A MI CORAZON")

GARSD: And the whole idea is you don't quite get to go back to this mythical, idealized place. It doesn't matter how many cups you win.

(SOUNDBITE OF FITO PAEZ SONG, "Y DALE ALEGRIA A MI CORAZON")

SUMMERS: Jasmine Garsd is the host of NPR and Futuro Studio's podcast The Last Cup. Good luck, and may the best team win the World Cup.

GARSD: (Laughter) Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.