DOHA: It is now or never for Lionel Messi. The Argentina superstar’s once-in-a-generation career will be defined — for many — by whether he leads his country to the World Cup title on Sunday.
Can he finally, at the age of 35, win football’s biggest prize to secure his place alongside Pelé and Diego Maradona in the pantheon of the game’s greatest ever players?
Standing in his way is France, the defending champion, and Kylian Mbappé, the player best positioned to take over from Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the sport’s marquee name.
That’s if he hasn’t already.
Mbappé also is standing on the cusp of history heading into the match at the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium, a title decider that is filled with storylines. The 23-year-old France forward is looking to emulate Pelé by being a champion at his first two World Cups and set up the prospect of a third title, a feat only ever achieved by the Brazil great who has been hospitalized during this year’s tournament because of a respiratory infection.
Mbappé was 19 when he led France to its second World Cup title in 2018, becoming the youngest scorer in a final since a 17-year-old Pelé did so in 1958. While Pelé ended up being a peripheral figure in Brazil’s 1962 triumph — he didn’t play in the knockout stage because of injury — Mbappé has been France’s go-to player in the team’s bid to repeat. Indeed, Mbappé enters the final tied as the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals. The player alongside him? Messi, of course.
Who wins the Golden Boot — the award for the top scorer — is just one of the many other narratives around the final.
There’s France, the dominant national team of this generation, looking to become the first to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962. The country that produced Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and now Mbappé will be playing in the final for the fourth time in the last seven World Cups, more than anyone else.
Then there’s Didier Deschamps, a World Cup winner as a player in 1998 and now bidding to win it two times as a coach. Vittorio Pozzo was the only other man to coach two world champion teams, with Italy in 1934 and 1938.
Like France, Argentina is seeking a third World Cup title — after 1978 and 1986 — to move into outright fourth place in the all-time list. It would end a 36-year wait for football’s biggest prize, since Maradona’s string of virtuoso performances in Mexico in 1986.
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