DOHA - Sunday’s World Cup final is more than just a game. It will be an era-defining match, a battle between football’s past and future.
The past is represented by Lionel Messi, the Argentinian savant, the greatest talent of his generation. The 35-year-old has declared this will be his last World Cup match.
How fitting it would be for him to cap almost two decades of mesmerising masses by lifting the one trophy that has eluded him.
The future – and some would argue present – belongs to Kylian Mbappe. France’s electric forward who combines his frightening speed with an impressive eye for goal. He is only 23.
Given the talent filling these two players’ boots – and the fleetness in which they move – it is difficult to see this game as anything other than a passing of the torch between the two Paris Saint-Germain clubmates.
Every now and then, sport delivers such moments.
Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods at Valhalla in 2000. Pete Sampras to Roger Federer at Wimbledon a year later. Or Kobe Bryant to Lebron James at the NBA All-Star game in 2012.
Mbappe can claim he has already ascended to the top by winning the 2018 World Cup aged 19, even scoring in the final. But he is yet to win a Ballon d’Or, which Messi already had two of by the time he was 23.
Mbappe has been king-in-waiting for a while now, as the world debated whether Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo was greater. Ronaldo’s miserable campaign in Qatar appears to have settled that argument.
Mbappe told The New York Times in September that his time is now.
“I think I’m about to win it (the Ballon d’Or),” he said. “I always say I dream about everything. I have no limits. So of course, like you say, it’s a new generation. And Ronaldo, Messi – you’re gonna stop. We have to find someone else, someone new.”
Lifting the Cup again would make him a shoo-in.
Messi and Mbappe have already met once in the World Cup, in Russia four years ago, when France defeated Argentina 4-3 in the round of 16. Mbappe scored twice and won a penalty. Messi assisted twice.
Both are poised to make an impact again on Sunday. The fact they are the leading scorers in Qatar with five goals each has almost become an afterthought in this changing-of-the-guard narrative.
After a sensational defeat by Saudi Arabia in their opener, Messi and Argentina have rebounded and have looked better with each passing game.
Messi’s form and influence has also grown, with two outrageous assists, each better than the last, in the quarter-final against the Netherlands and then the semi-final against Croatia.
Mbappe, as is fitting for a player as explosive as he is, scored three goals in the first two matches to help secure France’s passage into the knockout round, before a world-class brace against Poland in the round of 16.
On the face of it, Messi and Mbappe are different types of players.
Messi is a creator, dropping deep at times to pick up the ball, eyes always scanning for teammates across the pitch, brain always whirring trying to conjure up an opening.
Mbappe, meanwhile, is far more direct, going on exhilarating sprints with only scoring on his mind.
“I like,” said the French legend Thierry Henry, “the way he can see a goal, the path (to it), and execute it.”
In essence, however, both are masters at doing very little, very well. They share an intuition for being around for moments that change games.
They hardly defend. According to statistics gatherer Opta, Mbappe has incredibly contributed only a single defensive action in the entire tournament, the lowest of any player.
Hardly a surprise when he loiters for most of the game near the halfway line, saving his legs for turbocharged sprints that blow the opposition away. Messi, not exactly a grafter either, has 1.5 defensive actions per match.
Those who have been able to watch them in the flesh, though, will swear what an enthralling experience it is. Every time the ball arrives at their feet, fans hold their breath and the air becomes still.
Will Messi pick out a defence-splitting pass? Will he magically squeeze himself and the ball between two defenders? Dance around three? Bamboozle four?
Will Mbappe glide down the wing, stretching those powerful legs, leaving the defender eating dust? Or will he cut inside two or three defenders, like he did against Morocco, to set up the second goal?
More often than not, they leave the spectator with a sight to behold.
In Qatar, Mbappe has completed 20 take-ons for a consecutive World Cup. Since Opta began tracking such statistics in 1966, the only other players to do it in two World Cups are Eden Hazard (2014, 2018) and Diego Maradona (1982, 1986).
Only one player has completed three: Messi (2010, 2014, 2018).
Some believe that through Messi’s greatness and longevity – the final will be his record-setting 26th game at the World Cup – he has earned this Cup, one that would crown his career.
But it could be argued a win would mean equally as much for Mbappe. He would sit alongside Pele as the only players to win two World Cups by the age of 23. He would transcend Ronaldo, Maradona, and Messi.
Mbappe is already a player with massive influence – in 2021 French President Emmanuel Macron pleaded with him to reject an offer from Real Madrid and remain with PSG.
But as he continues to search for Champions League success and superstardom, which he has struggled to attain in France, a move to Madrid appears inevitable. Just as his rise to the very top of football.
On Sunday, the world will be transfixed on this spellbinding battle of vindication – or coronation – featuring two incredible talents.