What does it take for a World Cup game to become an instant classic? Teams of pre-tournament favorites with something to prove after disappointing group stages? Check. Questionable coaches leading both teams? Helps keep things unpredictable. Two cracking long-range goals? Yes, please. The world’s best player versus the world’s best teenager? Absolutely.
It only took about 10 minutes for 19-year-old French forward Kylian Mbappé to stake his claim in France and Argentina’s Round of 16 match, a thriller France won 4–3. After an Argentina turnover, his sprint with the ball from his own defensive third looked like an Industrial Light & Magic special effect, like he had forced the rest of the world into slow motion. World Cup hero Marcos Rojo had what amounted to a 50-yard head start and still let Mbappé race past him. Rojo was forced to foul, and Mbappé stayed on his feet long enough to drag the defender into the box and turn his tactical foul into a penalty, which Antoine Griezmann converted.
From there you might be forgiven for thinking it was game over already. Lionel Messi and the others would need to push forward to score, and France could keep hitting its Mbappé button over and over.
Argentina’s switch to a new system did little for their coherence. Everything revolved around Messi playing as a false-nine, a center forward who drops into midfield to get on the ball. The point of this is to drag the center backs forward and open up space behind the defense for your other attacking players, either a midfield runner or an in-cutting wide player. For the first half at least, Argentina had neither. They desperately needed their own Mbappé getting in behind.
But France took their foot off the gas after the goal, and Argentina grew into the absence of pressure late in the first half. Argentina’s large-scale tactics may have been a mess, but they were winning the little situations, coming alive for corner kicks and restarts while France stayed on cruise control.
The tying goal, when it came, was the result of a simple throw-in. France needed N’Golo Kanté to defend Messi, but they’ve become accustomed to him covering every other point on the field as well. He was tracking Messi when Argentina scored their equalizer, neither Paul Pogba nor either of the center backs stepping up to meet Ángel Di María, who had so much time to shoot you would think he had just crossed over Wesley Johnson.
After that, the shootout. Messi got the World Cup’s lamest assist for shooting into Gabriel Mercado’s foot (2-1 Argentina). French right back Benjamin Pavard took advantage of the fact that the tournament is being played with a giant wiffle ball to score the goal of the tournament (2-2). Mbappé showed that he doesn’t need 70 yards to outrun every player on the pitch, just one cut, one explosion of pace, and one scrum left in his wake (3-2 France). France finally, blessedly, combined artfully on the counter for Mbappé’s second (4-2 France). Messi reads Sergio Agüero’s mind and lifts a perfect lob over Raphaël Varane’s head to turn stoppage time into a nightmare for French nerves (4-3 France).
Neither side seemed willing or able to just kill the game. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli’s unwillingness to use forward Paulo Dybala even when down two in an elimination game felt emblematic of his tenure as Argentina manager, which may already have ended by the time you read this. France’s Didier Deschamps subbing Mbappé—his one threatening player—off for a curtain call moments before Argentina turned it back into a one-goal affair felt just as representative of his time in charge, which has walked the line between dumb luck and dumbstruck for the past six years.
It would be too simple to call this a passing of the torch. Mbappé may one day be one of the world’s best players, but it’s not as if Messi has vacated that title with this loss. Still, looking at Mbappé he may see some similarities with his younger self: a level of incisiveness with his touches, the same accelerating to top speed from a dead stop in a whirl of feet like he was the Road Runner. Messi, after all, was just 19 when he scored his famous mazy running goal against Getafe.
That Messi is gone now, even if he did average the second-most dribbles (after Neymar) in the group stages. The player who once so obviously thrilled with the possibilities of what could be done with a ball at his feet and space in front of him has been eroded away to make room for Maximal Efficiency Messi, the player who gets critiqued for walking too much but scores goals and earns assists anyway, taking just a couple of touches to bypass defenders, fitting passes through narrower and narrower windows as if to prove he can.
Sometimes it feels as though Messi sees but rejects the old moments of brilliance because he’s come up with a quicker, if duller, route to get the ball from Point A to Point B. He’s like an inventor who stopped tooling around with the jetpack he was building because there was more money in electric scooters. Who could blame him with this Argentina team? How can the spark of genius flourish in someone who has played each game in Russia like he’s Hector turning to face Achilles, knowing both that everyone is counting on him and that he is definitely going to fail?
Messi had to evolve. He doesn’t get open space in front of him with the ball at his feet all that often anymore, the kinds of opportunities France was able to conjure for Mbappé. After his performance Saturday, Mbappé might find those opportunities harder to come by. Future opponents will send tactical wrinkles and dedicated markers out to stop him from doing to them what he did to Argentina. They’ll have to catch him first.