As Lionel Messi rises into a league of his own, Kylian Mbappé proves he’s not far behind
LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi began his ride into football’s golden sunset as teammates streamed across the field. He had just scored the goal Hollywood had mapped out in the 108th minute of an insane World Cup final, his final game on football’s greatest stage. Limbs flailed all around him. Friends attacked him. A deafening roar filled Lusail Stadium. It swelled again when Messi finished with an undercut punch of his right fist, and louder still as he spun to all sides of the arena, creating more noise, all part of a celebration of a potential winner that lasted nearly two full minutes.
And meanwhile, Kylian Mbappé stood in midfield, waiting patiently and knowingly as football saluted its king.
Mbappé endured fate for more than three hours on Sunday in Lusail. He watched his sport adore the greatest who had ever played it. Then he invented his own bold alternative screenplay. It starred King Leo and the man who will eventually dethrone him as joint protagonists in the greatest sporting story ever told.
Argentina 3, France 3, the World Cup finale “forever,” was a glorious remix of Mbappé’s script and Hollywood’s. It had far too many characters and chapters to remember, too many twists and turns and mind-blowing. It was nonsensical and memorable for many reasons, but mostly because it featured the two greatest players in the world.
It crowned Messi, now the undisputed greatest of all time.
In doing so, it elevated Mbappé into a stratosphere inhabited only by Messi and a few others in football’s centuries-old history.
The score continued at 2-0 until just before the 80th minute, Mbappé fired a ball over the top of Argentina’s defence. It resulted in a penalty which the 23-year-old converted and set the stage for this drama.
A minute later, it took Mbappé all of half a second to leave Argentina full-back Nahuel Molina in the dust. After he did that, a ball floated towards him on top of the box and as he hung in the air, Mbappé’s charming authority curled into the rafters of Lusail Stadium in a fleeting moment. As he waved his hips and announced his intentions, Argentinian fans ducked in horror. Neutrals braced themselves for greatness. French fans erupted, a few thousand almost making the noise of millions In front Mbappé had swept a majestic volley past Emi Martinez. Because greatness feels inevitable.
Mbappé and Messi are completely different players, but they share a superpower that witnesses hit almost every time each gets the ball. It arouses anticipation and fear. Fans prepare for magic; Opponents arm themselves to fight back, which is often not possible. From the 82nd minute on Sunday, every touch from Mbappé turned the game around. Each of them sent back Argentina’s defenders and struggled to protect against his pace, just as opponents have long sought to protect against Messi’s passes and dribbles.
And yet Mbappé still terrorized her. Apparently towards the end of the second half he threw himself on every free ball and drove into overwhelmed defenders. They looked petrified and were reluctant to even attempt a tackle near the box for fear of being a split second too slow and conceding a clumsy penalty.
He also checked his right foot again, curling in adorable crosses that nearly snapped onto Randal Kolo Muani’s head. He jinks and jukes in and out of defensive dead ends. He fabricated danger almost out of thin air. In the 124th minute of an unfathomably grueling game, he tied Cristian Romero in the left corner and sliced into the penalty area and – a billion viewers thought in unison: no, he couldn’t, right?
He would stay high and wide when Argentina had the ball, putting pressure on the Argentines immediately if they lost the ball. He slammed his right foot at Martinez and that was ultimately why Messi’s drive was delayed into the sunset. One of Mbappé’s shots hit an Argentine hand. Mbappé completed his hat-trick – the first in a World Cup final by a loser – and sent the game to penalties.
Messi eventually rode into World Cup history on the shoulders of teammates. He capped an unprecedented career with the missing trophy it deserved. He ended all rational GOAT debates with a second World Cup Golden Ball to go along with his seven Ballon d’Ors. He’s a magician, the biggest scorer and Creator and dribblers of his generation. He now has the World Cup, which Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t have. He already had the longevity and consistency that Diego Maradona didn’t have, against competition Pelé never faced. He’s in a class of his own.
But as he pranced around the Lusail pitch on Sunday night, reveling in what he called a “childhood dream” moment, there sat the one grown man who might be able to do the same someday. There sat Mbappé, slumped in the French dugout, his jersey pulled over his face. He later moved to the worn grass and settled there to watch the celebrations he wished were his own. French President Emmanuel Macron tried in vain to comfort him. Mbappé gave no thought to a hat-trick in the World Cup final — a World Cup final hat-trick! At the start of the tournament he had said that for him “the World Cup was an obsession” and that he hadn’t won it. The Golden Boot was little consolation.
But it was a harbinger of the decade to come. Messi is not retiring but will fade one day. Mbappé, on the other hand, is rising just as quickly as Messi once did. At the age of 23, he has scored more goals and collected more assists than 23-year-old Messi. He’s on course to break France’s top scorer record in his mid-20s.
“He will beat all records,” said teammate Olivier Giroud a few weeks ago. Team-mates and coaches speak of Mbappé’s insatiable drive for team and individual success – what makes him, in the words of French assistant coach Guy Stephan, “an exceptional player”.
So is Messi and, in short, that was the recipe for the greatest World Cup game of all time. They were two very good teams, each with an incomparable catalyst.
“He’s undoubtedly the best in history and he showed that in the game,” Argentina midfielder Rodrigo de Paul said of Messi. “He showed it throughout the tournament.” Messi hasn’t reached his picture-perfect goal, but he has achieved his picture-perfect finish; his beautiful moments in the field with his children; its chance to replicate the Photo by Diego Maradona; his ride through Lusail, on the team bus, towards the moonlight.
Mbappé, meanwhile, respectfully melted back into his dressing room, through a post-match interview area and out of the spotlight for now.
But he comes. He’s already here, of course, and has been for years, but his time will come. Only the Messiah could put his rise to the football throne on hold.