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A Lionel Messi-Kylian Mbappé World Cup final (with some other good players, too)

Kylian Mbappé has helped lift France to Sunday's World Cup final. (Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

RAYYAN, Qatar — Maybe one-eighth of humanity might watch from time zones both populous and barren Sunday as one cosmic star from Rosario in northwest Argentina opposes one cosmic star from a banlieue just northeast of Paris.

“The upcoming match will be Argentina vs. France, beyond Messi vs. Mbappé,” Argentina Manager Lionel Scaloni said.



That’s right.

The 64th and final match of the 2022 World Cup will pit two-time winner Argentina against two-time winner and defending champion France, but it will bask in an opulence of individual star power so bright it could occlude even the illness that had tormented the French. Somehow, onto the same pitch in the city of Lusail, in a stadium that looks sort of like a gilded bathtub on approach, the final will manage to cram both 35-year-old Lionel Messi of Argentina and 23-year-old Kylian Mbappé of France.

What a challenging night up ahead — for photographers.

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé take different paths to lethal brilliance

One (Messi) has been world famous in three different decades. The other (Mbappé) has won a World Cup. Another win and Mbappé “might be the new Pelé,” Morocco Manager Walid Regragui said, reaching for the sport’s loftiest terminology. Pelé of Brazil won World Cups in 1958 at age 17 and 1962 at age 21. If Mbappé wins at 23 to pile atop the one he loudly led in 2018 at age 19 in Russia, his fame might start to sprout further so as to reach almost …

… a strong fraction of Messi’s.

It’s unquestionable that from a perspective of the planet at large, Messi’s bid for a first World Cup title on what is probably his last try dwarfs all other themes. He has played at 19 in 2006 on a team that lost a quarterfinal to Germany on penalty kicks; at 23 in 2010 on a team that lost, 4-0, in a quarterfinal to Germany; at 27 in 2014 on a team that lost the final, 1-0, after extra time to Germany; and at 31 in 2018 on a team that lost, 4-3, in the round of 16 to France in a doozy of a game, in which fewer than one-third of current players participated.

Messi’s likely last World Cup inspires hope in a beleaguered Argentina

He came around here in this autumn oddity of a World Cup to have his side promptly lose a 2-1 shocker to Saudi Arabia, then win five more while giving off the clear impression of the urgency his young teammates feel in striving for this for him.

“It’s not only about him,” French goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris said. “It’s a strong team with a lot of talented players, a young generation of players, and you can feel they are all dedicated to Lionel Messi.”

“He’s playing very well,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said, “and this gives us so much energy for the whole squad.”

“I think,” France Manager Didier Deschamps said, “that Argentinians and more people around the world — and perhaps some French people as well — would hope that Lionel Messi could win the World Cup, but we’re going to do our best.”

Contained in that passage lay a funny little plausibility: and perhaps some French people as well.

When Messi and team arrived, the sprite with all the ingenuity had scored six goals in World Cups yet none in any knockout rounds. He began by scoring on a penalty against Saudi Arabia, but then the whole light-blue ship looked imperiled when Qatar’s only next-door neighbors scored twice in reply and loosed all known decibels in Lusail Stadium.

“As you said,” Martínez told a reporter, “this is completely crazy. We lost to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the tournament, but we maintained our excitement. I know it was a heartbreak for everybody, but we got better little by little.”

‘¡Abuela la la la!’ Argentina’s viral dancing World Cup lucky charm

As they did so, Messi worked his way to five goals, tied with Mbappé atop the tournament, including three in the knockout stage — one each against Australia (a hairy 2-1 win), the Netherlands (a hairier win on penalties) and Croatia (a decisive 3-0 win that shouted that game-to-game improvement Martinez mentioned). And to boot, that last game featured an outrageously good arrangement of an assist by Messi on the second of two goals by 22-year-old Julián Álvarez.

Along the recent way, Messi has looked more sanguine, more engaged with the impressively populous Argentine crowds in post-match celebrations. It does look as if Argentina’s win last year in Copa America, Messi’s first major international win and something Martínez brought up, lent him some peace with a drought long enough that it had become groaning old news.

“I see him very happy,” Martínez said.

“Of course we know what Lionel Messi means in the history of football,” Lloris said.

“We have the advantage to have the great player of all times,” Martínez said in a statement roughly echoed around the world all the time.

France, meanwhile, has the greatest program of this era. It has that globally envied national academy and that talent deep enough to withstand major inconveniences, which is good because it might face even more major inconveniences.

To the inconveniences that included pretournament injuries to players Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema, players any country would like to import, France got here with the specter of doom, especially given no defending champion has repeated since Brazil in 1962. Then an illness made its way into the French camp and dominated French chatter in recent days, leaving Deschamps to manage the semifinal win over Morocco without defender Dayot Upamecano and midfielders Kingsley Coman and Adrien Rabiot.

The French academy where World Cup dreams take flight

“I don’t want to go into the details,” Deschamps said Saturday. “I know it’s a subject that is of interest to you, and I fully understand that, but we are taking precautions to try to adapt and do what is necessary. Of course we would have preferred not to face this difficulty, but we’re managing as well as we can, with help from our medical staff.”

The French hardly looked all that much impaired or less full of skill during this run. They mauled Australia, 4-1; bested Denmark, 2-1, on two whopper goals by Mbappé; lost to Tunisia, 1-0, without the urgency of having to clinch passage to the knockouts (they had clinched already); beat Poland, 3-1, with Mbappé wonder; beat England, 2-1, in a thriller; and beat Morocco, 2-0, in a show of elite quality over indestructible heart.

Morocco departs with one last cheer and one new global reputation

If you have Mbappé and other glistening talents — the fabulous Antoine Griezmann, all-time leading France scorer Olivier Giroud — can’t you win a match? It could depend on how depleted your defense.

“In any case,” Lloris said, “I hope this match will go down in history, French history in particular.” He also said, “I think thanks to the adrenaline and excitement that we will feel, we’ll all be fit enough to do everything we can to win this last battle.”

The French will play their first match in Lusail, while it will be a fifth for the Argentinians. That could create mild advantage. They will have the smaller crowd in a World Cup that Europeans have not deluged, even as Deschamps reminds while praising Argentina, “Our opponents are not in the crowd.” They will bring a defense not regarded as all that ironclad. They will meet a team whose sturdy manager, Scaloni, looked a little addled after the Saudi Arabia match but now says, “We are at the peak of our game now, I would say.”

Clearly, they’re going to have to bring something unusual.

Clearly, they can do that.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.