Why NPR and Futuro Media took a chance on Lionel Messi and ‘The Last Cup’

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Lionel Messi

The Last Cup, NPR and Futuro Media’s all-encompassing five-part podcast about the life and career of soccer phenomenon Lionel Messi, was born at a barbecue in Brooklyn. 

Born and raised in Argentina, NPR reporter Jasmine Garsd said she “grew up on a steady diet of soccer.” Now based in New York, she’d spent the last few years ruminating over a “confluence of ideas” about her home country, its diaspora, the figure of Messi, and his own troubled relationship with Argentina. 

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on the horizon, Garsd’s thoughts had begun to intensify, especially since it would probably mark Messi’s final foray into the competition. 

At a friend’s barbecue in the fall of 2021, Garsd waxed lyrically to Marlon Bishop, VP of podcasts for Futuro Studios, about her passion for Messi. “I told him how obsessed I was with Messi and how he has such a fraught and complicated relationship with Argentina,” Garsd said. “He just said to me, ‘Well, maybe we should do a podcast.’”

Soon the pair were seriously brainstorming about a potential series. With the World Cup a year away, they knew they’d have to work quickly to do the podcast right. Luckily for Bishop, Garsd had already made a start. “I’ve been writing this for 15 years in my head,” she said. 

Garsd (Photo: Victor G. Jeffreys)

Garsd wanted to take a unique approach with The Last Cup, which will finally debut Nov. 10. Of course, it would mainly focus on Messi’s spectacular ability and success, the split-second decision he had to make as a 12-year-old over whether to go to Barcelona, as well as his “resentments, anguish and yearning to come back to Argentina,” Garsd said. 

At the same time, Garsd wanted to tell her story of leaving Argentina just months after Messi initially went to Spain. 

“The podcast also tells my story of leaving Argentina and having to start over as a teenager in Southern California with my family in a very, very precarious position,” Garsd said. “Then it also tells the story of my best friend who stayed in Argentina. He is a gay man who would hear the homophobic songs being sung by soccer fans. Along the way, we meet a lot of other characters.”

‘You can’t just do a lazy translation’

Considering the subject matter and its characters, when Garsd pitched The Last Cup in February to Lauren Gonzalez, NPR’s senior manager of content development, she said that it needed to be a dual-language podcast. Episodes would be released in both Spanish and English, and their content would differ, too. 

Each pair of episodes start in a similar place but soon diverge. Overlaying a translation over each episode wouldn’t have expressed nuances that are powerful for Spanish-speaking listeners, Garsd said. 

“This is a topic that’s so near and dear to people’s hearts. It merits the complexity of both languages,” she said. “What I’m really proud of is that, if you listen to the English-language version, you’re going to get the story with its own Easter eggs and special characters, jokes and music. You’re going to get the same story in Spanish, but with different jokes and different characters. I thought it was really special that we didn’t just dub this.”

According to Bishop, the episodes are more cousins than siblings. He insists that, while they weren’t designed to be listened to one after another, people who hear them consecutively say they find extra detail in both. 

Bishop

“We assume people are just going to listen to their language version,” Bishop said. “But we always hear from people that listen to both, and they really enjoy hearing the differences in the two versions. That’s been the case in all of our shows. It’s not like TV. You can’t just do a lazy translation and use subtitles. If you really want it to read and be impactful in another language, you have to invest this kind of attention to making it really a podcast that works natively in both languages.”

Gonzalez instantly liked the idea of The Last Cup being a dual-language podcast, as it aligned with NPR’s ambition to build its Spanish-speaking listenership. 

“We have been really interested in how to better center Latino audiences,” said Gonzalez. “… We wanted to create a more multidimensional story around Messi. We wanted to give folks an option and an ability to shift and connect with that story in two different ways.”

NPR brought Futuro Studios on board as a partner by due to the production company’s history of co-producing dual-language podcasts, including Ídolo: The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez and La Brega.

“Part of our mission is to expand accessibility and great podcast storytelling into Spanish,” Bishop said. “I think there’s an interest in public media to serve audiences that are not currently being served. There’s also a commercial interest to expand the audience in the market.”

Not all of Futuro’s podcasts are dual-language, but no one doubted that The Last Cup would get the treatment. “This is a story about one of Latin America’s biggest stars and one of the biggest sports figures in the world,” Bishop said. “There’s a huge Latin American and Spanish-speaking audience that will be interested in his story.”

A universal story

While The Last Cup will obviously appeal to soccer fans, Garsd, Bishop and Gonzalez all stress that it will even draw listeners with no interest in the sport. They also hope the universal nature of Messi’s story will attract new listeners to public media. 

After making a request on Twitter for immigration stories, Garsd received a wave of responses. They came not just from people who had left Latin America for other countries but who had departed from Afghanistan, India and the Caribbean. Each of the podcast’s episodes ends with these responses.

“Having to leave home is a universal story,” Garsd said. “There’s a massive Latin American and Caribbean diaspora with all kinds of different immigration stories, ranging from the tragic to the not tragic. Soccer can be the great connector in those stories.”

“There’s a really vibrant world of sports podcasts out there. So we want to appeal to soccer nerds,” Bishop said. “But there’s also the people who are interested in identity, class, race, the experience of immigration and other things that are explored frequently in public media. Even if you have no interest in sports, there’s a lot here. It’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to the show.”

The Nov. 20 start of the 2022 World Cup will aid the podcast’s efforts to appeal to a far-reaching global audience. The tournament’s location in Qatar, which forbids homosexuality and reportedly committed human-rights abuses during the building of World Cup stadiums, has provoked debates regarding the country’s suitability as a host. 

Garsd hopes The Last Cup will force listeners to look deeper into soccer’s many complexities, which have only grown in recent years as it has become a multibillion-dollar industry. 

“Soccer is really complicated,” she said. “Our podcast talks about the dark underbelly of the industry, especially economics. This is an industry where really young Latin American and African kids get sent off to European clubs. It’s really a fascinating metaphor for outsourcing. Most won’t become Messi. There’s going to be a lot of crushed dreams. Our podcast is both a celebration and a critique of soccer. It’s about joy, and it’s also about tragedy.”

Most of all, though, it’s about Messi, his genius, and his final chance to land the World Cup that even the most partisan of soccer fans believe he richly deserves. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that The Last Cup will consist of six episodes. It will consist of five episodes.

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