Sports

The Past and Future Are Colliding at the World Cup

The final will come down to its two mega-megastars.

Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi celebrate with both their arms raised, a soccer-net scrim illustrated behind them
The dudes. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Juan Mabromata and Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images.

There are, of course, 20 other people who will be starting in the men’s World Cup final between Argentina and France on Sunday.

They are all world-class players, each of them capable of winning this most important of matches. Nick Ames in the Guardian calls both France and Argentina “team[s] of moments rather than sustained spells of coherence and control.” Individual brilliance will have an outsized impact on who wins this final. France’s Antoine Griezmann has been far more dynamic than we’ve seen him in the stolid system at Atlético Madrid or during his lost years at Barcelona, balancing offensive freedom with defensive responsibility to great effect. Argentina’s Julián Álvarez’s slot-car verticality has unlocked new dimensions for his team’s offense. We could go down the list. The amorphous, dynamic Argentine midfield; the mobile, intimidating French defense. The last time they played each other, in the 2018 World Cup, the game finished 4–3 in favor of France. These are good teams, who will present manifold problems to their opponents over the course of the game.

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But the root of those problems, or in some cases the catalyst that augments their danger, is the presence in each squad of one of the best players in the world: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappé. We don’t need to dig for X Factors and save the big names for the encore here. The players most likely to decide the World Cup final are exactly the ones you might expect.

Messi is the bowling ball in the center of the sheet of Spandex; the game spirals around him, his gravity warping vast tracts of the pitch as defenders attempt to keep track of him, to keep close to him. Watch this goal, from the 2018 game, when the ball arriving at Messi’s foot in the box after a free kick sends three French defenders into panic mode. The resulting deflection off Gabriel Mercado for a goal is lucky, certainly, but it might not have been possible if they hadn’t abandoned him so completely.

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He has been far more dangerous in this tournament than that one. His brilliance is astronomical, best viewed through specialized and unorthodox means. Watch the sky-high tactical camera shot of his tightrope throughball against the Netherlands, and you can see how he pulls defenders out of position to open the hole he needs to play the pass to Nahuel Molina—and just how narrow that window was.

But if you fail to shift everything to account for him, you end up with something like this:

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That sideline view is the best angle to watch Messi matched up with 20-year-old Croatian center back Josko Gvardiol, an outstanding player both in this tournament and for his club. They are moving so fast, the sequence full of so many little twists and feints and grabs, that it’s easy to forget that Messi is doing it all while in complete control of a ball at his feet. Messi is 15 years older and six inches shorter, and he absolutely tanks somewhere between four and seven of Gvardiol’s forearm shoves, adapting instantly to the only one of them that he even seemed to notice by using it as the setup for his final, killer fake that created the gap he needed to slip a pass to Álvarez for his goal.

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Somehow all of that might not be enough. The 23-year-old Mbappé is irrepressible, a solar flare racing across the attacking half at speeds that probably round up to 300 million meters per second, ready to fry all your systems in an instant. He runs like Michael Jordan jumped; there is something extra about it, something superlative, like they have hit the sweet spot of the most basic of human exertions. Watch his second goal against Argentina in 2018, how he streaks across that diagonal to get to Giroud’s gentle pass, how far forward his knee extends, how far back his trailing leg drags. Cut out that silhouette and put it on a shoe.

Mbappé hasn’t scored many that look like that in this World Cup. Nobody in the world gives him a runway that long if they can help it. Defenders either charge right for him or cheat backward on him, anything to keep from getting vaporized by his afterburners. Unfortunately for those defenders he’s been rather good at coping with these counters, as seen during his two pinpoint goals against Poland. (He didn’t score against Morocco in the semifinal, but both of France’s goals came off shots of his that deflected to teammates in acres of space.) The best, most Mbappé-like combination of his skillset at a World Cup comes from the first goal he scored against Argentina in 2018, when the ball bounced to him in the box and he took a single, heavy touch past three defenders and then beat them all to it anyway.

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As with Messi, what do you do to stop that? They are potential vs. kinetic energy. With Messi on the ball the question is what is he going to do with it. For Mbappé it’s where he is going to go with it. Their best is simply better; your best chance is to hope that they can’t reach that in the moment: They get the timing wrong, they hit a little bit under it and it sails over the bar. These are the moments that will decide the game. These are the players most likely to produce those moments. (That France has No. 3 in Griezmann and possibly No. 4 in the on-form Giroud is why they are ever-so slightly favored.)

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But the pair will not be creating them against each other. Neither of them plays enough defense at this point to allow for that. Calling it Messi vs. Mbappé isn’t quite accurate. The contest is to navigate similar but unique obstacle courses laid out by the other’s team. The contestants did not hit each other with the pugil sticks on American Gladiators. The real opponent is the achievements at stake for each of them. It’s history.

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In this they are not really competing, not yet. Though Mbappé is the active player currently most likely to eventually have his career weighed against Messi’s, for now the generational gap between them precludes the comparison. It is too soon. Their legacies right now are intertwined anyway; they are teammates at Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain. Instead, each has his own rival, which both have routed over the course of the past month.

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In Messi’s case, Cristiano Ronaldo has had a terrible month. Just before the World Cup kicked off, he got so tired of Manchester United attempting to play him off the stage that he arranged an interview with Piers Morgan, the last refuge of the scoundrel, to complain about it. It was less a burning of bridges and more a complete detonation of them, The Bridge on the River Kwai but without the clarifying, final-act rush of self-awareness (or, arguably, any self-awareness at all). The two parties agreed to mutually terminate his contract shortly afterward. He is still looking for a new club. Then, after a sluggish group stage, he found himself benched for Portugal’s Round of 16 match, where he watched the rest of his side’s talent blow away Switzerland 6–1, a victory for the collective over the ego so thorough it essentially disproved Randian Objectivism in one 90-minute go. Messi’s numbers in this tournament, as Fox Soccer helpfully twists the knife, compare favorably to Ronaldo’s entire World Cup career.

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Likewise, Mbappe’s real opponent isn’t Messi or even all the teammates who seem to hate him, but Erling Haaland, the 22-year-old Norwegian goal-scoring kaiju who until this tournament started had been having perhaps the most spectacular season of any soccer player: With Manchester City, he’s scored 18 goals in 13 Premier League games, five in four in the Champions League. But Norway didn’t qualify for the World Cup, and Haaland has been watching from home as Mbappé has lapped him in the race to be the sport’s next preeminent superstar.

Mbappé’s star turn in the 2018 World Cup was thought to be a passing of the torch, but more than four years later, all these players are still sharing the most prominent stage. This feels common now in all walks of life. Maybe you’ve seen it at your job, maybe just in Star Wars movies and Super Bowls. The old generation hangs on even as the young generation tries to hurry in. Somewhere in the hive mind we remember everything that has happened; somewhere else we anticipate everything that might happen. The view down the exits and ingresses seems further. We watch them going for longer; we see them coming sooner. The past and the future entangle in the present.

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Win or lose, Messi will go back to graphing polynomial functions with his left foot for PSG. Perhaps after that he returns to doing the same thing with Barcelona, or even potentially for Inter Miami, for a price somewhere between a percentage of the club’s ownership and a blood oath that he will be made tyrant-king of Miami-on-the-Stilts after the sea levels begin to rise. So long as he hasn’t already made up his mind to retire on the field in Doha, then this World Cup Final will not vanquish him any more than it could make Mbappé disappear with a decade or more of his prime left in front of him. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 20 other people who will share the field with them at kickoff Sunday or everyone else who currently plays the sport; all eyes are going to be on them, now and going forward.

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