Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe sees immoral World Cup set for an immortal conclusion

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Ahead of a fixture of such a scale that it can overcome most players, a figure as experienced as Didier Deschamps knows exactly what he needs to tell his squad. He’s been here before, after all, as a captain and then as the victorious manager in the last World Cup. Deschamps may have all the composure that comes with potentially being just the second coach in history to retain the trophy, but he is well aware that some players start to feel an anxious energy they can’t contain, with the knowledge that every individual could go down in history – for good or bad – infusing every moment.

As such, he of course tells the players to keep it simple. Individual roles are reduced to the most memorable missives. There is one common instruction, though.

“Get it to Kylian as soon as you can.”

That simple command for once has more complicated dimensions, since Kylian Mbappe is not the main gravitational force on this match. France cannot just leave the opposition to compromise their own play for their star. That is because there is a bigger star, a bigger gravitational force.

Lionel Messi has probably dominated the build-up to World Cup 2022 final more than any player has ever dominated any match in history.

It is as if it’s been scripted. Messi’s career might be building up to the greatest glory right at the end, after so much anguish, in what would be the perfect storyline.

That’s if it weren’t for the problematic context, and if it actually happens.

The greatest possible challenge is reflected in how Mbappe could yet enjoy a historic landmark in what becomes an even greater legacy, and a second World Cup by the age of 23.

Mbappe vs Messi will be a defining battle four years after they met in the World Cup in Russia

(Getty Images)

The mere potential of such feats points to something else that is distinctive about this match, beyond even the fact it is two great football countries each going for their third World Cup. Before you get to that history or the politics, the 2022 World Cup final would stand out because it is a rare deciding match between two of the great stars of the age. That is something we arguably haven’t seen in its truest sense since 1974, and the meeting of Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.

Zinedine Zidane only became such a figure because of the 1998 final, with the same for Andrea Pirlo in 2006.

None have reached the scope of Messi or Mbappe, the mega-career of the senior player influencing that of the younger.

The presence of these two stars means the game has an immense gravity, to go with other forces and greater disciplines.

There is first of all, the physics.

If Mbappe stretches all games with his pace, Messi shapes them, his every movement affecting the space around him.

Deschamps has naturally been seeking to follow the examples of others to constantly place four players around Messi. That is an attempt just to limit the ball getting to him, since there’s not all that much you can do once he gets it and is in the right mood. Josko Gvardiol now knows that too well.

For Mbappe, Lionel Scaloni has been trying to figure out a few plans with his technical staff, as he’s done ahead of every match so far. It allows Argentina to adapt more easily within games, and speaks to Scaloni’s impressive acumen. Given the squad’s lack of pace at the back, though, it feels they have no option here but to initially have the defence sitting deeper.

It means this game isn’t so much cat and mouse but lion and leopard, both stars distorting the other side.

There’s then that history. While Messi is aiming to follow Maradona in leading Argentina to a World Cup, Mbappe can emulate Pele in claiming his second winner’s medal by the age of 23. We could well be talking about the formation and evolution of the competition’s greatest-ever figure, especially as he already has nine goals and is aiming to win the golden boot in this one. He is also up against Messi for that, their very performances throughout these runs only further burnishing their legacies. The focus isn’t just because they are megastars but because they have genuinely been the most influential players in this World Cup.

Mbappe is aiming to match Pele and claim his second World Cup winner’s medal by the age of 23


There is then the politics and the geography.

If a World Cup final marks the point at which all stories and strands converge, that is more true for this than any other.

This final already represents a perfect ending for the hosts. Their final features the two biggest names from their other major sportswashing project at Paris Saint-Germain. Doha will forever be associated with this grand meeting, and maybe the greatest storyline in football history, in the same way the Azteca will always be remembered for Pele and Maradona. Qatar can claim full ownership of the game as much as the players. The investment has paid off, their aims enriched by all the political summits that have taken place at this World Cup. Whoever loses, Qatar has won.

This immoral World Cup may yet have an immortal conclusion.

The Lusail itself, constructed out of a migrant worker system that has involved so much suffering, can similarly have an influence.

Argentina have already played four of their six games there, the venue feeling all the more like home because of the tens of thousands of fans who have travelled. They have represented one of the rare better experiences of this World Cup, and have only been rivalled in number by those from Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

Most others haven’t travelled. Doha has seen large open spaces like the Corniche completely empty at times when such areas would have been packed in other tournaments.

The problematic nature of the hosts has undeniably affected that, no matter how much Gianni Infantino bleats about how great it’s all been.

France have come in very few numbers.

France fans haven’t travelled in huge numbers


That doesn’t really matter to the team, mind. This is a battle-hardened side who have played through more intimidating circumstances. They showed that resilience against Morocco, if also a real vulnerability.

While France look to become only the third team in history to retain the World Cup, they are quite a different side to 2018.

They just don’t have the same solidity, with N’Golo Kante’s absence no doubt a key factor in that. This has made them looser at the back, if also more lively in attack.

Morocco showed how to get at them. It remains incredible Walid Regragui’s side didn’t score, and that wasn’t always because of defensive defiance.

The French still stamped on their dream, though. That’s not the first time they’ve done that. It is the great fear many have for the final, and for Messi.

France could become the new Germany in that sense, relentlessly crushing imagination with their brutal realism. It would be the opposite of 1982 in that sense.

This run already means they have reached three finals in the last four international tournaments, just like Germany used to.

They similarly tend to find a way despite so often looking unconvincing, the manager’s canniness and the immense strength in depth coming to bear.

France have reached the final in three of the last four major international tournaments


The final is a meeting of different football cultures in that sense, which affords it a wider importance beyond these teams and the stars.

Having once been the source of so many elite footballers, Argentina are adapting to a new academy-led world. It is why this team is a bit of a mix, and there’s an irony that it looks significantly inferior to the sides of 2006 and 2014. That has instead served them in terms of the psychology of the group, with a good combination of experience and youthful exuberance.

France are on the opposite side of that. While they primarily benefit from the fact Paris has become one of the three most fertile areas for footballers in the world – along with south London and Sao Paulo – they have perfected what all wealthy western European countries have done and industrialised talent production.

That is why this is a French golden era, and they stand on the brink of a third World Cup. If they win, it would also make it the fourth successive World Cup that has been claimed by such a system.

The historical trend is clear. That doesn’t mean this match is clear.

These backgrounds are naturally reflected in the teams. While France seem to have this core drive, Argentina are fired by the emotion around them. They have this dogged momentum which means every game will be a fight, as France attempt to make them a process. Through that, Deschamps’s side have kept everything steady even when there have been bumps.

Argentina have instead had that long unbeaten run, only for an abrupt defeat to sharpen them. Scaloni’s side now have a more serene focus, set by Messi. The very prospect of the final may influence that. Argentina’s confidence has naturally grown.

Argentina have made no secret that their driving motivation in Qatar is to finally win a World Cup for Messi

(Getty Images)

France’s assurance has never wavered.

The hope is that at the very least means an open and attacking game, especially as both teams are so front-loaded in terms of talent. It might also mean the first goal is even more influential than usual. Whoever concedes it will need to come out, potentially creating that space for Messi and Mbappe.

Even if they are still crowded out, then, there’s the ascendant Julian Alvarez as well as the resurgent Antoine Griezmann and the ongoing redemption of Ousmane Dembele. Will the injured Karim Benzema be brought back? Olivier Giroud may not win headers so easily against this aggressive Argentine defence, however, even if he is that bit taller. The Dutch had to go under their centre-halves to score their crucial second goal. Argentina still went through.

This points to how France do have more angles of attack, and are probably the better team. That doesn’t mean they have the better chance.

It does feel genuinely 50-50, because of how the chaotic course of a tournament can condition things. Argentina have grown with it. They want to do it for Messi even more than they want to end a 36-year wait.

“We will do everything humanly possible for that not to happen,” Deschamps said after the semi-final. “At the end of the match, someone is getting a third star on their shirt.”

The French manager was making it simple again. This is what it can be brought down to.

Three stars on a shirt, two megastars on the pitch, one game of unique stakes. So much politics and controversy surrounding it, but only the trophy in the middle, to be lifted and lift someone to greater heights.

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