Every youngster who ever loved soccer has had a similar fantasy at some point, and it goes something like this.
The World Cup, a screaming crowd, an international audience – and the chance to play against one of the all-time legends of the sport.
At this tournament, and other World Cups before it, there are a handful of players for whom the dream came true.
“And then it’s a case of ‘Whoa'”, FOX analyst DaMarcus Beasley, who represented the United States men’s national team 126 times, said with a laugh. “Careful what you wish for.”
With just over a week to go in this World Cup, three-quarters of the field has already been eliminated, leaving only eight teams remaining to battle it out for soccer’s grandest prize.
Yet the four biggest names in the sport, by any reasonable metric, are still here. The hold that Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar have on soccer audiences is obvious enough to need no explanation.
But the presence of the true current legends of the sport can also have a seismic influence, albeit in a slightly different way, on opposing players for whom facing them is often an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We really worked hard not to be in awe of [Messi], because of the great player he is,” Australia head coach Graham Arnold told reporters after his team’s hard-fought 2-1 defeat to Argentina in the round of 16. “But wow, he’s remarkable.”
So remarkable that several members of the Socceroos squad could not help themselves after the game, corralling Messi for selfies and, in the case of reserve midfielder Cameron Devlin, swapping jerseys with him.
That reaction led to some criticism back home and internationally, following the general lines that players should not be “fanboys.” FOX’s Maurice Edu said such talk was unfair.
“You have just played a generational kind of player,” said Edu, who faced Messi himself in an international friendly between the USA and Argentina in 2011. “Once you start taking those things for granted, you are naïve. When I played in the  World Cup, I thought I would get at least a couple more chances, but it didn’t work out that way.
“Those guys might not come back, they may never get another chance to be in same vicinity as Messi. It is harmless, and it is actually a sign of respect that they rate him so highly.”
FOX colleague Jimmy Conrad was part of a Major League Soccer All-Star team that visited Real Madrid in 2005 and faced a pair of World Cup-winning legends in Brazil’s Ronaldo and France’s Zinedine Zidane.
“You are in awe of the whole situation,” Conrad told me. “You’ve watched them on TV so many times, you are finally getting your crack at it. You are seeing how you square up to this person. You are a bit in awe at the handshakes. Oh s—, that’s Ronaldo. In the game you know what they want to do, you’re just trying to make it hard for them.”
Beasley faced Ronaldo in the 2014 World Cup but was already a long-term national team member by that point. Among his most memorable occasions was when the USA met (and beat) Portugal in 2002, and he came up against all-time great Luis Figo.
“It was a special moment for a young kid,” Beasley said. “I was 20. I wasn’t cocky but because I didn’t know what to expect – so maybe that helped. To be the best, you want to beat the best. You relish those challenges but as a player you have to go at them. Once you don’t do that, that’s when they’ve got you. Once the whistle blows, the name has to go out the window.”
There are different ways of getting ready for such challenges. Poland’s Matty Cash, who plays for Aston Villa in the English Premier League, was directly matched up with Mbappé in the round of 16 as his team went down to France, 3-1.
He spent much of the previous day watching Mbappé highlight videos online. It didn’t help much.
“He’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” Cash said. “I was watching the videos while lying in bed. In real life, he’s burning my legs. That’s the difference.”
The ultimate dream is obviously to not only play against an icon, but to beat them. Failing that, Edu said, there is a clear objective. For the record, his USA squad tied 1-1 with Messi’s Argentina in 2011.
“A huge thing is you hope you have earned their respect,” Edu said. “You want to feel that way when you walk off the pitch. On the field though, the best way to show respect is compete like hell, not show this passive nature.”
Seventeen years have passed since Conrad and the MLSers – after just two days of preparation – lost 5-0 to the original Ronaldo and company. And yet, he told me, he still reflects on the experience as an invaluable lesson.
“One of the things I have never forgotten about it is the perspective I gained,” he said. “It’s not what you learn about who they are, it’s what you learn about why they are so good. The tiny things, the little details. So many of them. You carry that with you.”
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