One can only see Pele’s Brazil up against Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the FIFA video game, but reality has refused to be left too far behind. It has set up Kylian Mbappe’s France against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Believers could hold this as proof that matches are made in heaven because there could not have been a more fitting finale to the most competitive World Cup in memory. Japan have beaten Germany; Saudi Arabia have defeated Argentina and Tunisia have beaten France in this edition. Africa got its first World Cup semifinalist in Morocco, who got rid of Spain and Portugal. In short, this World Cup has made the glorious uncertainties of the game the only certainty. In such a World Cup, to have two finalists who started the tournament as favourites feels like a twist in the tale.
There could not be a better final for a neutral. On one hand is Messi, compared both fairly and unfairly to Maradona, in what would be his last World Cup match going by his own assertion. On the other is the obvious heir to Messi’s throne as the best footballer in the world – Mbappe.
Just as Pele was a boy wonder when Brazil won their first World Cup in 1958, Mbappe was an eye-catching teen when France won it in Russia four years back. One could already see his brilliance and wonder what he could become. Today, Mbappe is the scariest predator in attacking third since Brazil’s Ronaldo in 1998 and 2002. The French has scored nine World Cup goals so far and he is just 23. Thus he has broken Pele’s record for most World Cup goals before turning 24. His place among the all-time World Cup greats seems inevitable, especially if he scores in the final. And we are not even discussing his assists, his sheer presence on the field which makes the opposition lose track of threats like Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele.
How incredible Didier Deschamps’ lot is can be gauged from the fact that they have had all bases covered without having Karim Benzema in attack, Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante in the midfield. Not that the French defenders have not fluffed their lines at all – they conceded two penalties against England for example – but the imposing figure of Hugo Lloris under the bar has not let them concede many.
This French side has looked unbeatable (not counting the Tunisia loss when Deschamps basically fielded his reserve bench) but they are up against Argentina. Messi’s Argentina. If football is more art than a game for you, it is difficult not to love Messi, no matter which team you support. This, by far, has been his best show at a World Cup. Like Mbappe, Messi has scored five goals so far. But even more captivating has been his overall control of the game, the culmination of which was his hypnotism of Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol in the semifinal. The resultant assist to young sensation Julian Alvarez sealed the final berth and this happened when people were not finished discussing Messi’s final pass to Nahuel Molina for Argentina’s first goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinal.
Unlike his previous World Cups, Messi, at 35, has looked like a free bird in the company of talents like Alvarez, Lautaro Martinez, Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo de Paul et al. They have been so efficient that Lionel Scaloni could give a player of Angel de Maria’s calibre breaks. The defence of Nicolas Otamendi, Cristian Romero, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Acuna et al has been solid after the Saudi disaster. Even more solid has been Emiliano Martinez with the gloves. Two saves in the penalty shootout against the Dutch reminded one of Sergio Goycochea, who kept rescuing Maradona’s side from one shootout after another in Italia 90. Having someone like that under the bar is reassuring for those who think Messi deserves to sign off with the World Cup in his hand, for the joy he has provided millions with for almost two decades.
But is Messi really up against France or is he up against Maradona? The emotional genius who took Argentina to glory almost single-handedly in 1986, set the bar so high that even Messi has found it beyond reach till now. The bar shall not be lowered and to be honest, nobody deserves the World Cup more for what he has done over the years. The team that plays better over the all-important 90 minutes deserves it. That was West Germany in 1990 and Germany in 2014. That is why Maradona and Messi had to end those evenings in tears. Maradona is remembered as much for his success as his imperfections. Can squeaky clean Messi script the perfect ending?
Originally published in The Meghalayan