DOHA, QATAR (AP) – 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 today.
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 football’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 hospitalised during this year’s tournament.
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, 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.
Expect to see Mbappé and Messi walking around a lot during the game, not bothering to defend or press. That is in the script, rather than them being lazy. Part of the skill of Deschamps and Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni is their ability to forge a team that has learnt to defend a man light.
As for Argentina, the team is largely set up simply to get 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 semi-finals.
They will scrap and press, and then give the ball to Messi to weave his magic.
Or to Julián Álvarez, the striker who started the tournament as a backup for that unthinkable 2-1 opening loss to Saudi Arabia and now is undroppable with four goals to his name.