Messi v Mbappe: Showdown of PSG superstars in World Cup final

Argentina versus France will reward only one of the generation-defining talents with the ultimate prize

Argentina's Lionel Messi will take on Kylian Mbappe of France in the World Cup 2022 final. AFP
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On the day Lionel Messi was introduced to his new workplace in Paris 15 months ago, he heard a surprising sound. Messi, naturally, was being enthusiastically applauded on his presentation as a Paris Saint-Germain signing. Booing was then directed by some Parisiens at one of their city’s most talented sons, Kylian Mbappe.

The derision has stopped since then, and as the two superstars, one of them native to Paris, one initially reluctant to relocate there from his long-term home in Barcelona, have grown closer, their audiences have appreciated being witness to a blessed period in history: Two generation-defining talents as PSG teammates, combining their magic on the same pitch.

On Sunday Messi of Argentina and Mbappe of France get to share a pitch on the greatest stage of all, a World Cup final just north of Doha, from where many roads lead directly to Paris.

It was influential powerbrokers from France who helped push Qatar as host nation of the 2022 World Cup. It is Qatari investment that enabled PSG to employ superstars from across eras, 35-year-old Messi and 23-year-old Mbappe, at the same time.

It was the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Mbappe earlier this year to persuade him that those boos he heard from PSG fans would be quelled if he committed long-term to staying in Paris and that to do so would be a patriotic choice, a vote for France, when the forward was considering, then rejecting, a counter-offer from Real Madrid.

At least one freshly-minted World Cup winners' medal will be on its way to Paris next week, and a narrow consensus is that it is less likely to belong to Messi than Mbappe; that he and 25 of his compatriots will be parading their gold medals along the Champs Elysees.

France’s champion calibre, man for man, and their resourcefulness makes them slender favourites. The title-holders have shaken off significant setbacks – injuries to senior men, such as Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Lucas Hernandez and Presnel Kimpembe – with the sort of confidence that comes from continuity.

This will be Les Bleus’ fourth World Cup final in seven editions. The majority of their squad have been brought up through one of the most envied development systems in the sport. Their manager, Didier Deschamps, has been in charge more than a decade and was captain when France won their first World Cup in 1998.

Their opponents at the Lusail Stadium envy the French very little in terms of history, or a culture of high standards in youth football. But the momentum carrying Argentina to the final has been less smooth.

Granted, they came to Qatar unbeaten in 26 matches, delighted how their young head coach, Lionel Scaloni, had turned from stop-gap caretaker to respected leader. Yet after they lost their opening game, to Saudi Arabia, and let go a 2-0 lead late in their quarter-final against the Netherlands, some old insecurities about the effects of tournament pressure needed curing.

The best medicine for that has been Messi, whose fine form for PSG since August after a sometimes difficult first season in Paris has carried over to Qatar. As if he very deliberately designed his calendar to peak in time for this, his fifth World Cup.

Argentina beat Croatia

But take away or nullify Messi, and Argentina would have to look harder than France do for inspiration. Take away Benzema, the holder of the Ballon D’Or, the 2018 World Cup winners, Kante, Pogba and Lucas Hernandez, and France have still been commanding enough to hold off a competitive, sparky England in the quarter-finals, of resisting Morocco in their semi.

Deschamps is thrilled by how his veteran striker, AC Milan’s Olivier Giroud, has taken club form into the World Cup, and how Antoine Griezmann had expanded his repertoire to cover for Benzema’s clever link play, Pogba’s eye for a pass, and Kante’s defensive firefighting all at the same time.

Kante, the Chelsea midfielder currently recovering from a hamstring problem, was hailed four years ago in Russia, for his expert marshalling Messi when France knocked Argentina out of the World Cup, 4-3, at the last 16 stage.

After that defeat, Argentinians held their breath over Messi’s reaction. He had announced – then rescinded – his retirement from internationals after the previous tournament disappointment, the 2016 Copa America, and it was feared another failure to clinch a major trophy might tip him that way again.

Like Mbappe, taking calls from Macron, Messi has listened to appeals from politicians about patriotic obligations, when he doubted the possibility of ever achieving big prizes with Argentina. Winning last year’s Copa America did put a spring his step, though, and his last few months in Paris have been an ideal platform to show some of his dazzling best in Qatar.

He would dearly love to go back to his French home with the one major trophy he is yet to win. A majority of neutrals are probably with Messi more than Mbappe, just to see the captain of Argentina rewarded for all the joy he has given his sport. And because they know there are many more years left to appreciate France’s young star than there are to savour the unique gifts of Messi.

Updated: December 17, 2022, 1:04 PM