Doha, Qatar — It’s now or never for Lionel Messi.
The Argentine superstar’s once-in-a-lifetime career will be defined – for many – by whether he leads his country to the World Cup on Sunday.
Can he finally win football’s greatest prize at the age of 35 to secure his place alongside Pelé and Diego Maradona in the pantheon of football’s greatest players of all time?
Standing in his way are France, the defending champions, and Kylian Mbappé, the player best placed to replace Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as football’s poster child.
If he hasn’t already.
Mbappé is also on the verge of history, heading into the game at the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium, a story-filled title decider.
The 23-year-old French forward is looking to emulate Pelé by winning his first two World Cups and building a third title prospect, a feat previously only achieved by the tall Brazilian, who was hospitalized during this year’s tournament because of a respiratory infection.
Mbappé was 19 when he led France to their second World Cup title in 2018 and became the youngest goalscorer in a final since 17-year-old Pelé in 1958. While Pelé became a marginal figure in Brazil’s 1962 triumph – he did not come through injury in the knockout stages – Mbappé was France’s regular in the replay.
In fact, Mbappé goes into the final with five goals as the tournament’s top scorer. The player next to him? Messi of course.
Who wins the Golden Boot – the award for top goalscorer – is just one of the many other stories surrounding the final.
There’s France, the dominant national team of this generation, aiming to be the first to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil 1962. The country that produced Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and now Mbappé will play in the finals for the fourth time in the last seven World Cups, more than any other.
Then there’s Didier Deschamps, who won the 1998 World Cup as a player and is now a two-time champion as a coach. Vittorio Pozzo was the only other man to coach two World Cup teams, with Italy in 1934 and 1938.
Like France, Argentina are aiming for a third World Cup – after 1978 and 1986 – to move up to fourth in the all-time list. It would end a 36-year wait for football’s greatest prize since Maradona’s virtuoso performances in Mexico in 1986.
This forever made Maradona a hero in Argentina and an icon throughout the football world. Messi seems to be at that level now – on Sunday, when he plays in a record 26th World Cup match, he wins or loses.
Messi has evoked comparisons to Maradona as he led Argentina to the final, scoring five goals, assisting three more and delighting the legion of his team’s fans who flocked to Qatar during the World Cup in a number only truly equaled by them Morocco.
In that sense, it will seem like a home game for Argentina, with France’s supporters sure to be heavily outnumbered amid a sea of blue and white shirts – many of which will read ‘MESSI 10’.
It’s hard to pick a winner.
France are a hard-nosed tournament team with plenty of experience and the quality to pull off wins when they’re not at their best. Deschamps has kept France’s level high despite losing key players like Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe and reigning World Player of the Year Karim Benzema ahead of the tournament.
The French are masters at being pragmatic, compact in defense and quick in breaking, typically through Mbappé on the left and through Antoine Griezmann, reinvented as a midfield playmaker in the last month.
Indeed, expect Mbappé and Messi to run around a lot during the game and not bother defending or pressing. That’s in the script instead of them being lazy. Part of the skills of Deschamps and Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni is their ability to mold a team that has learned to defend an easy man.
As for Argentina, the team is mainly focused on getting the best out of Messi, with Scaloni likely to select a quartet of central midfielders, like in the 3-0 win over Croatia in the semifinals. They’ll scrape and press, then hand the ball to Messi to weave his magic. Or Julián Álvarez, the striker who started the tournament as a substitute for the unthinkable 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia and is now unbeatable with four goals.
Álvarez pinches himself for being Messi’s attacking foil at the big man’s last World Cup at 22 and early in his career.
Similarly, the tens of thousands of spectators in Qatar’s stadiums and millions of TV viewers around the world never cease to amaze at the magic Messi keeps delivering.
Anyone who isn’t French, or perhaps an ardent Ronaldo fan, is probably willing to bet on Argentina’s tiny No. 10 in the biggest game of their career.
Eight years ago, Messi walked away with the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player after losing 1-0 to Germany in the 2014 final.
Instead, this time he wants to raise another 18k solid gold trophy to crown a career like no other.
Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
https://abc7.com/world-cup-messi-france-argentina/12586440/ Messi aims for glory, Argentina meets France in the World Cup final