What did we do to deserve this?
Did we all watch out, not cry, not pout?
Were we all nice, not naughty?
Was it merely that all of us who love the game — who revel in the men’s World Cup every four years — that we waited with at least some degree of patience through an extra five months so FIFA could stage this tournament in Qatar without everyone melting in the summer heat?
France vs. Argentina?
France vs. Argentina!
MORE: History of France vs Argentina matches
The only way this could be better is if it were your country, whatever country that might be, playing Sunday to hold up the golden globe that is the most coveted trophy in all of sports. For those of us who do not live in Paris or Buenos Aires, this is our holiday gift.
“It’s never easy, but it’s been such a joy until now,” France coach Didier Deschamps told Fox Sports following a 2-0 victory Wednesday over Morocco. “I tell this to my staff and to my players to take every moment during the day to really appreciate and savor the moment. We would love to be able to spend time, but we can’t. In four days, we’re going to play for a world title. We’re going to really enjoy it now, and then get ready for the last match of this World Cup.”
France and Argentina were two of the top three betting favorites in advance of the tournament. They feature two of the most brilliant stars in the game, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Kylian Mbappe of France. Each nation has won the World Cup twice in its history. There is so much to draw all of us to our screens Sunday to see what develops.
Messi vs. Mbappe
As often is the case with superstar showdowns, the two only occasionally will encounter one another on the field. Does that matter, though? Messi is the greatest player of his generation, quite possibly the greatest of all-time, and every piece of evidence we have to date suggests Mbappe will be his successor.
At 23, Mbappe owns one World Cup title and is this close to a second. He has scored 147 goals with his clubs and 33 in 64 caps with France. At the same age, Messi had won two UEFA Champions League titles, four La Liga titles and an Olympic gold medal and had scored 88 goals for FC Barcelona and 15 in 35 senior Argentina national team appearances.
This is as if Michael Jordan and LeBron James had met in an NBA Finals. That would have been tough, because in 1998, when MJ was winning the last of his six, “King James” was in seventh grade, probably still just a prince.
That’s why this is so precious. The overlap between players of such exorbitant ability at either ends of a career is rare. It means no matter which side is in possession of the ball, there is the potential for something genuinely magical to occur.
It means if Messi’s Argentina wins, he will have earned the only significant honor to have eluded him. If Mbappe’s France wins, he will be firmly on track toward joining Messi, Pele and Maradona as icons of the game.
America vs. World
In Russia in the summer of 2018, France earned the second star above its crest with a decisive 4-2 victory over surprising Croatia in the World Cup final.
In Brazil in the summer of 2021, Argentina ended Messi’s fruitless quest for a major international title with a 1-0 victory over rival Brazil (photo below). It was the 15th Copa America championship for the Albiceleste, but only the first for Messi after defeats in four international finals.
So that’s what we have here: the World Cup champs vs. the Copa America champs.
The only thing that would rival such a showdown would be the World champs vs. the Euro champs, but Italy failed to qualify for this tournament, so this is as good as it could have been.
South America vs. Europe
We are a long way removed from when someone on Pele’s level would spend nearly his entire career with his first club, Santos, in his home country of Brazil, only moving to the United States in his final three seasons to help spread the gospel of the game (and for a sweet, multi-million-dollar contract).
The center of the club soccer universe long ago was established in the continent of Europe, with the ascendance of the Champions League and the booming television rights market making its clubs wealthy enough to purchase the most talented players from around the world.
Whether there is a cause/effect relationship is unclear, but international competitions also have been usurped by European teams. There has been no World Cup champion from a continent outside Europe since 2002, when Brazil defeated Germany for the trophy. That’s four in a row from Europe.
Argentina will not be concerned with continental supremacy when they face France. The focus will be on trying to win a championship. But there is something to be said about returning some degree of balance to the world’s game.
France vs. The Curse
Les Bleus already have blown away the hex that had affected nearly every reigning World Cup champion going back to, well, France in 2002. That year’s squad had a disastrous group performance, finishing last behind Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay, earning just a single point in a 0-0 draw against the latter team. They did not score a single goal.
That began a stretch in which four of five reigning champions failed to advance from group play: France 2002, Italy 2010, Spain 2014 and Germany 2018 all missed the knockout rounds.
This France team featuring Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Raphael Varane is attempting to exceed the group led by Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira, who won the 1998 World Cup, flopped in 2002 and lost in the 2006 final to Italy on penalties.
Even with injuries to two likely starters in midfield (N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba) and striker (Karim Benzema, the Ballon d’Or winner), France finished first in its group and has won three games to advance to the final.
“To play two finals in the World Cup is incredible,” France left-back Theo Hernandez told Fox Sports.
But that is not the end. The greater obstacle for reigning champs has been to go all the way. There has not been a team win consecutive titles since Brazil dominated in 1958 and then overcame an early tournament injury to Pele to claim the 1962 title. That means 15 teams have tried and failed to do what France will be attempting in the Argentina game.
“Now the last step, the most difficult,” France goalkeeping star Hugo Lloris told Fox Sports. “At the moment, we are more focused to enjoy and then we need a good recovery to prepare for the last battle. We need all our strength, all our energy to face an amazing team, very competitive. And he’s one of the legends of our sport, Messi.”
Messi vs. the past
It’s clear Messi is playing against his own history. This is the fifth World Cup in which Messi has played. It has not always been a joyous experience.
Argentina reached the final with him as the tournament’s top player in 2014 but fell, 1-0. His other three World Cup appearances, in 2006, 2010 and 2018, ended in significant disappointment.
Argentina reached the final in 2014 and lost in extra time, 1-0, on a 113th-minute goal by Germany’s Mario Gotze. Its other defeats have been less glorious, perhaps equally agonizing: a 4-3 loss in the 2018 Round of 16 in which they twice held leads but could not hold off the France attack; a 4-0 quarterfinal embarrassment against Germany in 2010, a loss to Germany on penalties in 2006.
MORE: How Lionel Messi has performed in cup finals
There have been other top stars who got the chance to win World Cups late in their careers, but the players to whom Messi is most often compared — Diego Maradona, his countryman, and Pele — won World Cups far earlier in their careers. They did not have to wait for this moment.
Messi, 35, said after his team’s semifinal win that he feels “a lot of happiness to be able to achieve this: to finish my World Cup career playing my last game in a final.”
So this is your last chance to see him in the World Cup.
Lionel Messi vs. time is not one he can win.