The World Cup’s two biggest names are headed home from Russia.
Just hours after Lionel Messi’s Argentina exited the tournament with a Round of 16 defeat against France, Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal suffered the same fate against Uruguay, losing a 2-1 on a pair of Edinson Cavani goals at Fisht Stadium in Sochi.
And you know what? It doesn’t really matter.
Sure, it would have been nice if Ronaldo and Messi had hung around another game or two. The sport’s two best players and most transcendent superstars are impossible not to follow as long as they’re involved. And at ages 33 (Ronaldo) and 31 (Messi), their millions of adoring fans across the planet might never get to see them compete in a World Cup again.
Let’s face it, though: Everyone knew going into the event that these particular Argentine and Portuguese teams probably weren’t good enough to win the whole thing despite each of them having one of the greatest players of all time at their disposal.
That didn’t make it any less sad to see Messi trudge off the field after Saturday’s match in Kazan, thousand-yard stare in his eyes, perhaps as the realization that he would never win a World Cup set in. It’s not his fault that La Albiceleste’s back line is as porous as a trucker hat.
Ronaldo couldn’t do it by himself, either. Nobody would’ve bet against it after his hat trick against Spain in Portugal’s opening match. But Ronaldo faded noticeably as the competition went on. He was rendered mostly ineffective by Uruguay’s stout defense; it was fellow veteran Pepe – not No. 7 – whose powerful header pulled Portugal level 10 minutes into the second half after Cavani put the Uruguyans ahead in the first. Saturday marked the sixth consecutive knockout match in which Ronaldo failed to score.
Is the World Cup really any worse off without Ronaldo and Messi, though? There are plenty of marquee attractions left. It’s fitting that Kylian Mbappe’s coming out party – the 19-year-old French sensation scored twice and set up another in Les Bleus’ 4-3 win over Argentina – came in Messi’s potential World Cup farewell.
As much as World Cups are for celebrating living legends, it’s also about creating them. Mbappe is second youngest player in Russia. English captain Harry Kane, whose five goals lead the pack, is also playing on soccer’s grandest stage for the first time.
But even players with previous World Cup experience have the potential to leave a lasting mark this summer or cement their legacies, starting with Cavani and Luis Suarez. The veteran Uruguay strike duo has displayed an almost telepathic understanding through four games; it was Suarez who set up Cavani for the opener at the end of a textbook give-and-go.
There’s also Brazilian headliner Neymar. Colombian ace James Rodriguez. Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku of dark horse title contender Belgium. Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri. The list goes on.
We’re only a day into the knockout phase, and already this has been a World Cup for the ages. The quality of play, the flow of otherworldly goals, the constant drama has Russia 2018 in the conversation for the best tournament ever. The entrainment value has been through the roof. It’s probably surpassed Brazil 2014, an enthralling affair from beginning to end that happened to feature Messi in the final.
There’s no reason to think that the theater won’t continue over the next two weeks, even with the game’s two brightest lights watching from home.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Bushnell: Power ranking the Round of 16
• MVPs and LVPs of the group stage
• Dates, kickoff times for the Round of 16
• What could replace yellow cards as FIFA’s last-ditch tiebreaker?