Messi’s wisdom vs. Mbappé’s power of youth the focus of dream matchup in men’s World Cup final

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Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men’s World Cup for CBC Sports.

The men’s World Cup final will be a contest between more than France and Argentina. It will be a battle between Europe and South America, between two-time titlists seeking a third, between Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi, between the speed and power of youth and the craft and guile of middle age.

Sunday’s game is a dream matchup, if a little too convenient for Qatar’s emir, who happens to own Paris Saint-Germain, where both Messi and Mbappé play their club soccer. Golden, glittering Lusail Stadium will now host the biggest match in history. Tickets are going for more than $12,000 US, and the worldwide TV audience is expected to exceed 1.5 billion.

The perceived evenness of the game makes it only more enticing. Predictions are pointless. On Saturday, the odds of victory for either team were identical; the live win probability gave Argentina the slightest edge, 35 per cent to 34, with a 31 per cent chance that extra time will be needed to decide the winner.

Given all the forecasts of greatness, there is a single proviso: World Cup finals don’t often live up to their billing. Anxiety sets in, tightness reigns, and chances fall away.

That’s what happened the last time Argentina and Messi made the final in 2014. Facing nerveless Germany and under the burden of colossal expectation, he was mirthless and heavy-footed, and his team lost in extra time, 1-0.

A dejected Messi after losing the World Cup championship game to Germany in 2014. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

‘Freedom on the field’

At 35, Messi appears to have learned his lesson in what he has said will be his last World Cup. He has embodied contentment, making transcendent plays — a pass against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, a run against Croatia in the semis — that will live forever in the sport’s collective memory. Watching the late-career version of Messi is like watching wisdom at work.

“Now he’s like an attacking midfielder with a lot of freedom on the field,” France head coach Didier Deschamps said Saturday. “This makes it very difficult and complicated to stop him.”

An Argentine journalist went viral last week when she told Messi what he has meant to her, and millions like her.

“Truly, you made your mark on everyone’s life,” she said. “And that, to me, means more than winning a World Cup. No one can take that from you, and this is my gratitude for the amount of happiness you have brought to people… Thank you, captain.”

Messi had a half-smile on his face looking at her, and he nodded, almost shyly, like a little boy.

“We have the great advantage of having the greatest player of all time,” Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said Saturday. “He’s excited, he’s full of joy, and this helps us very much.”

The French, meanwhile, have been ruthless and clinical here, masters of moments. If Messi’s education has been one of mistakes, France has used its last final — a 4-2 win against Croatia in 2018 — as a lesson in affirmation.

In that game, they held 34 per cent of the possession, made one pass for every two that Croatia made, and scored twice the number of goals. Here, they have continued to concede the ball, beating England and Morocco by claiming victory in the half-seconds that decide a match. The French have done just enough, and they have done it again and again.

That might be a concession to reality more than an explicit strategy. Several French players have been ill with flu-like symptoms, which Deschamps has blamed on Qatar’s relentless commitment to air conditioning. Ibrahima Konaté, Raphael Varane, and Theo Hernández were among those missing from Friday’s training session.

The French roster was already depleted. Despite losing Paul Pogba, N’golo Kanté, and Karim Benzema to pre-tournament injuries — rumours aside, Benzema will not be returning to Qatar — they have still reached their second consecutive World Cup final and fourth of the past seven. A win will make them the first repeat champions since Brazil in 1962. 

“We are not talking about one player,” Martinez said, assessing his ridiculously deep opponents. Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, and Hugo Lloris are each capable of changing the game on their own.

A soccer player kisses the World Cup trophy.
Mbappé celebrates with the World Cup trophy in 2018. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Search for serenity

Most eyes will remain on Mbappé, who could become a two-time World Cup winner at 23, drawing comparisons to the great Brazilian Pelé. Mbappé and Messi are presently tied for the Golden Boot with five goals each; Messi’s superior only by measure of assists, three to two.

Deschamps said his young star will need to find “calm and peace” to succeed on Sunday — the same serenity that Messi seems to have already discovered.

When he takes the field, he will be making his record 26th World Cup appearance, in front of a crowd hugely in his favour. He will look across the tremoring grass and see his heir apparent bouncing on the balls of his feet, a young man with an embarrassment of riches, looking for more.

Whether Mbappé goes on to win his second trophy or Messi his first might come down to a different competition, an invisible contest within Messi himself in those crackling moments before the whistle blows.

What will he feel on his shoulders? Will he feel weight? Or will he feel wings?

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