That, the phrase ‘football is a team sport’ has never been debated, despite often being incongruously overused, is a cogent proof of its authenticity.
It is for this reason that all 12 Argentine players, who were involved in defeating West Germany to win the World Cup in 1986, deserve equal credit. Following the theme, praises should be showered on all 15 French footballers who stunned a star-studded Brazil side to become maiden world champions in 1998.
Yet, ask any Argentina supporter about the first thought that comes to mind about the 1986 World Cup, and the response will be – Diego Maradona. Ask a France fan about memories of the 1998 triumph, and you’ll instantaneously hear – Zinedine Zidane.
Though the football field has room for 22 players, the human eye and mind are not as accommodating. They usually revolve around only those who are the most alluring to the eye, and most enchanting to the mind. We call them ‘superstars.’
Since Steve Bloomer in the late 1890s, football has been a consistent and unceasing factory of producing superstars. Their role in the soaring popularity of the sport could be compared to that of Marlon Brando in The Godfather – not necessarily the only ones running the show, but most certainly, the showstoppers.
When France and Argentina will meet at the Khalifa International Stadium on Sunday, 18 December, football will hence provide us with two plots. The main plot will concern two spirited nations battling for their third title.
Crucially, there will also be a subplot, one that will solely focus on the superstars – Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe. The two modern-day wizards, stationed at distinctively unique junctures in their careers, yet united by their breathtaking brilliance.
A Legend With Many Crowns, Except the Most Glittering of Them All
1998 is regarded as the best year in the history of French football, but the reasoning behind the claim changed four years ago. The spotlight shifted from it being the year of World Cup triumph, to the year when arguably the nation’s most promising talent, Mbappe was born.
Messi, then aged 11 and playing youth football, saw his world come crashing down around the same time. Diagnosis of a growth hormone deficiency and the death of the first of his billion loyal fans, his grandmother, left the child heartbroken.
What happened between 1998 to now, is a story extensively documented. The child from Rosario went to Spain, conquered the world, won almost every accolade there was to win, broke records, and made new ones only to shatter them again.
His stature, once mocked for being diminutive, grew to biblical proportions – in quite a literal sense, as his countrymen gave him the moniker ‘Messiah.’ His shimmering cap had every incandesce feather in it.
Well, almost every feather. Barring the most spectacular of them all – the World Cup.
The Wonderkid Who Rewrote Narratives
Messi had four attempts at becoming a world champion. Germany ended his hopes in 2006, 2010 and 2014, but four years ago, there was a new antagonist in France.
The Argentine legend was left hopeless as a 19-year-old from Paris ripped apart his team’s defence, scoring two astounding goals. The teenager scored once again in the final, helping his nation equal Argentina’s tally of two World Cup wins.
Herein stood Kylian Mbappe, having just made perhaps the most consummate introduction to world football, sporting a winsome smile – as if he is laughing at the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the icons of this era who tried and failed at scaling the sport’s pinnacle.
As if, he was saying ‘it is really this easy.’
The Last Chapter of the ‘GOAT’ Debate
Since 2018, however, the transitory game has seen many changes. Argentina saw the emergence of exciting talents – ones who, in their own words, were ready to ‘go to war’ for Messi. The arrival of a new head coach, Lionel Scaloni, took the team to new heights.
Argentina saw the emergence of exciting talents – ones who, in their own words, were ready to ‘go to war’ for Messi. The arrival of a new head coach, Lionel Scaloni, took the team to new heights.
La Albiceleste won Copa America by beating neighbours Brazil, and then the Finalissima by beating European champions Italy. They remained unbeaten for 36 consecutive matches, and despite losing their first match at the FIFA World Cup 2022 against Saudi Arabia, made it to the final.
Every player on the team is sporting a conspicuous effervescence – the aura around the team screaming the magical words ‘champion material.’ Messi is having his best-ever World Cup, having already scored five goals and assisted three.
With his biggest contemporary competitor, Cristiano Ronaldo having a rather nasty fall from grace, Messi finds himself on the verge of settling the ‘GOAT’ debate, once and for all.
Argentina is ready with its most extravagant hero’s welcome, the commentators have jotted their congratulatory lines, the writers have extinguished their vocabulary, and the pundits are ready with the most grandiloquent adjectives. The stage seems all but set for the icon to lift the iconic trophy, in what will undoubtedly go down as one of the most iconic moments of the game.
Kylian Mbappe Loves a Party, or Two
Except, there is a party spoiler looming large on the horizon – Kylian Mbappe. Messi's teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, who is re-writing the narrative, moving the goalpost with very little regard for those who have had to wait for years to achieve eminence.
Becoming a world champion at the dusk of his career is just not for him, he would rather be a two-time world champion at 23, only the second since Pele to do so. Being content with the World Cup's Best Young Player Award is just not for him, he would rather also win the Golden Boot by beating Messi.
On Sunday, the global community will come to a standstill, for we have at our hands an epic collision. There will either be the greatest Third Act of the most glorious script the football gods have ever written, or the formal establishment of an audacious new world order, debunking all myths from yesteryears.
Nothing in between. Bring on the final.