Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe: Argentina and France’s best and brightest look to write two different World Cup histories | Football News

The World Cup-shaped cloud that has cast a shadow over Lionel Messi for more than a decade may finally clear this weekend. But another player desperate to make a very different kind of history stands in the way.

Now 35, Messi has already been here before. In 2014, while very much in his prime, he and Argentina suffered heartbreak in Brazil as Germany snatched the World Cup final from their grasp in extra-time.

That night at the Maracana was finally meant to settle the one question asked of this mercurial talent. Could Messi be the greatest player of all time, the GOAT, without lifting the World Cup?

In his tournament swan song, it is time to make amends with his last throw of the dice.

His opponent, Kylian Mbappe, has seen it all before too. Four years ago, the mercurial talent tasted victory with France as a 19-year-old and can now become the youngest player since Pele to lift the World Cup twice.

What Messi would give for just one winner’s medal. Argentina’s sparse trophy haul has held him back – in some eyes – from Diego Maradona and Pele, somewhat harshly given both his breathtaking performances and longevity at an elite level.

“Messi or Maradona? They are both aliens – but Maradona is better,” 2006 World Cup winner Francesco Totti told a web stream earlier in this tournament.

The Italian might think again if Messi flies home with a gold medal of his own next week. With the final throw of his dice, given he will be 39 by the next World Cup final, it may be finally time to shake off his few critics.

Though now in his twilight years, Messi has saved his finest performance on the international stage for this tournament. So have Argentina. Lionel Scaloni has finally balanced building a team around Messi, while managing to get the best out of him too.

With a game to spare, he has already surpassed Maradona as Argentina’s all-time top scorer at World Cups. He has scored in five out of their six games at this tournament so far.

A single goal or assist on Sunday would break the record for the most goal involvements at any single World Cup since 1966.

It is as though Messi wants to prove his greatness through his performances at the Qatar World Cup, as much as by winning it. His assist for Julian Alvarez against Croatia had more than a hint of Maradona about it. His no-look pass for Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands was nearly as magical.

“I just want to tell you that no matter the results, there’s something that no one can take from you, and it’s the fact that you resonated with Argentinians, every single one,” one Argentine journalist told him after another stunning performance against Croatia in the semi-final.

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Gary Neville feels the World Cup final should not define Lionel Messi’s case to be considered the GOAT, and says it is down to taste, which is why he prefers Cristiano Ronaldo

“There’s no kid who doesn’t have your team shirt, no matter if it’s fake, real, or a made-up one. Truly, you made your mark in everyone’s life.”

Now it is time for his country to return the favour. When Messi won the Olympics in 2008 with Argentina’s U23s, it another golden era seemed on the horizon.

But ultimately, it would amount to frustration to a level where Messi would announce his international retirement in 2016, after a fourth final defeat – one World Cup, three Copa Americas – at the age of just 29.

Within 45 days he was back in the fold. The iconic photos of Maradona hoisting the World Cup aloft 30 years earlier surely spurring him on.

It was still another five years before he finally had an international winner’s medal to put on the mantelpiece, but the 2021 Copa America served as a fitting dress rehearsal for this World Cup, with Messi playing a part in nine of their 13 goals.

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PSG team-mate’s Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe prepare to face each other in the final of the World Cup on Sunday, but who will come out on top?

Another 18 months on, victory over France will secure him the highest honours available domestically, continentally and internationally. Surely then his status alongside, perhaps above, those other generational players cannot be disputed.

One player hoping to keep the argument alive is looking to write his own legacy. In a markedly different way.

Messi and PSG team-mate Mbappe are reportedly not the best of friends in Paris, but the respect that runs between them, given the impact both can have on Sunday’s final, is beyond doubt.

While Messi has had to wait for international silverware, Mbappe has been spoiled.

He lifted the World Cup as a 19-year-old in Russia four years ago and should he do so again on Sunday, will become the youngest player to win two finals since Pele in 1962.

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Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler looks ahead to the World Cup final between Argentina and France and says he is expecting more from Kylian Mbappe

If France become the first team to lift back-to-back trophies since that same Brazil side years ago, they will owe a great debt of gratitude to the young striker, who has defined this French team just as the young Santos forward did then.

He could yet win the Golden Boot and Golden Ball trophies as well, but he has been clear which piece of history would mean the most to him.

“The only objective for me is to win the World Cup,” he told reporters ahead of facing England last weekend. “It’s the only thing I dream. I came to win the World Cup, not the Golden Boot or Golden Ball. It’s not why I’m here.”

Already potentially the best player in the world, Mbappe will become one of the most internationally decorated stars of history if Sunday goes his way.

People will remember that a lot longer than any top goalscorer race, and as he has matured he has become more of a team player at this tournament – despite topping the scoring charts too.

“At this moment in time, he’s not looking to make everything about him individually,” French football expert Jonathan Johnson told the Sky Sports World Cup podcast about Mbappe’s performances in Qatar. “That’s not always been the case at PSG.

“Because of that, he’s more likely to buy into the collective aspect of the way France go to set up in games. It’s such a target of his to help France defend this World Cup; if it comes down to a goal being scored by somebody else, he’ll look to play them in rather than take it on himself.”

France and Argentina’s route to success through a more selfless Messi and Mbappe sounds remarkably similar. Now to truly follow in his footsteps, he must find that consistency at the top for the rest of his career.

That will raise the question of whether a long-mooted move to Real Madrid, or to another club outside Ligue 1, must materialise to give him the rewards his talent deserves.

Just as Messi can answer all the questions about his career achievements on Sunday, so Mbappe can begin to join the conversation too.

The cycle never stops. We are just lucky to be here to witness it.

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