Is Kylian Mbappe the best player in the world? Why France star needs this World Cup more than Lionel Messi

Home Sports Is Kylian Mbappe the best player in the world? Why France star needs this World Cup more than Lionel Messi
Is Kylian Mbappe the best player in the world? Why France star needs this World Cup more than Lionel Messi

In the run-up to Sunday’s World Cup final at Lusail Stadium, you will not be able to move for legacy talk.

Lionel Messi is there again, for one last run at the big one with his Argentina teammates and an expectant, emotionally charged football public behind him.

Standing in the way of apparent destiny are France, trying to become the first nation to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Leading the charge is Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain teammate Kylian Mbappe.

Both men have five goals in the competition so far. There was a suggestion of baton-passing when France beat a chaotic Argentina 4-3 in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup, with Mbappe winning a penalty before scoring twice.

Messi supplied a couple of assists but cut a forlorn figure that day in Kazan. In Qatar, he has been as close to his sparkling best as is feasible within the limitations of a shopworn 35-year-old body. The debate over who has been the dominant footballer of the 21st century up until this point is at an end for all but the most committed Cristiano Ronaldo fanatics (Hi, Piers). 

MORE: Charting Ronaldo and Messi’s incredible journey to their final World Cup in Qatar

Mbappe looks every inch the man to assume Messi’s mantle, while already having the winners’ medal he craves most in his back pocket. But, for all the 23-year-old’s otherworldly gifts, you can argue that it is he and not Messi who really needs this one.

From a completist and a romantic point of view, the final is all about Messi. Of course it is. He can lift the one prize that has always eluded him, the biggest of all, and join his country’s other great idol Diego Maradona as a World Cup-winning magician.

Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Kylian Mbappe (France)

But, even if he is defeated for the fifth time in six finals with Argentina, Messi’s place in the pantheon is secured, his greatness absolutely iron-clad. The overwhelming majority of football fans would consider him one of the best two or three players to have ever laced boots. A swelling number of those would have him as the top one, irrespective of what unfolds this weekend.

For Mbappe, the most thrilling talent to have emerged over the past five years, similar status is yet to be earned. He obviously has ample time and obscene ability on his side, but the four-and-a-half years between him being France’s golden boy in Russia and now provide a curious study.

Since August 2018, only Robert Lewandowski (191) has scored more goals in all competitions across Europe’s top five leagues than Mbappe’s 148. Of players to have scored more than 100 goals during this time, only Messi (79) outstrips Mbappe’s 58 assists, meaning he is one of three alongside Messi and Lewandowski with over 200 goal involvements.

MORE: Can Kylian Mbappe set the all-time World Cup goals record?

Players with more than 100 goals in Europe’s top five leagues

Note: Table below encompasses all competitions since August 1, 2018.

  Games played Goals Assists G+A Minutes per goal Shot conversion rate Expected goals (xG)
Robert Lewandowski 180 191 33 224 81.85 24.27% 179.92
Kylian Mbappe 171 148 58 206 93.74 22.36% 131.86
Lionel Messi 177 133 79 212 112.78 15.89% 109.99
Karim Benzema 188 127 42 169 123.24 19.30% 113.39
Mohamed Salah 214 125 47 172 140.52 16.13% 121.20
Cristiano Ronaldo 175 122 25 147 120.59 14.14% 122.22
Ciro Immobile 175 117 33 150 122.56 19.73% 105.68
Erling Haaland 104 108 21 129 75.39 32.43% 82.22
Harry Kane 175 107 35 142 141.06 17.29% 96.87

In terms of minutes-per-goal he is third behind Lewandowski and Erling Haaland, while those are also the only three men in the elite group with a shot-conversion rate in excess of 20 percent. Haaland’s fairly absurd 32.43 percent success ratio comes from a smaller sample size of matches.

It paints a picture of Mbappe, the dual World Cup finalist, operating as one of the very best in the game in between those two peaks. Nevertheless, his deeds at PSG have often come without celebration.

DECOURCY: No one will soon forget Lionel Messi’s World Cup semifinal masterclass

Should Kylian Mbappe leave PSG?

When Messi won his seventh Ballon d’Or in 2021, the outcry related to Lewandowski being passed over. Mbappe came in ninth in the voting and rose to sixth this year as compatriot Karim Benzema walked away with the big prize.

In the era of Messi and Ronaldo, the Ballon d’Or has arguably become too much of an obsession for fans of the world’s most popular team sport, but it also gives an indication of where a player stands. It is certainly legitimate to claim Mbappe is the best player in the world right now, but only at the head of a tightly congested pack. He has not been able to separate himself in the way Messi and Ronaldo have over the previous decade.

Whether he can do that within the confines of the Parc des Princes feels doubtful. Mbappe’s prolific exploits between World Cups might surprise some casual observers, who have probably heard more about the butting of heads inside PSG’s all-star dressing room and Mbappe’s forays into fashion and entertainment.

MORE: Watch every World Cup match live with fuboTV (U.S.-only free trial)

Fragile egos and overly visible entourages are nothing new for star footballers. Mbappe is certainly not breaking the mold in that regard. However, Ronaldo and Messi always had the supreme sporting competition between Barcelona and Real Madrid to put any external noise in the background. 

At PSG, Mbappe is likely to pick up two or three domestic prizes a year at a canter before an unforgiving focus falls upon their latest failure in the Champions League. Messi being able to take things easy in Paris to ensure he arrived at this World Cup in peak condition hardly suggests Mbappe is being asked to push the boundaries of sporting excellence on a weekly basis.

Mbappe has batted eyelashes at Real Madrid extensively and a move to La Liga would certainly enhance his career story. The worry is that his lavishly renewed terms in Paris amount to a gilded cage.

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While Spain’s top flight ruled the roost during and because of Messi and Ronaldo’s imperial periods, the power in the European game now resides in the Premier League. Mbappe moving to England to place himself in direct competition with Haaland at Manchester City would mimic the iron-sharpens-iron dynamic. As Manchester United and Liverpool court wealthy new ownerships, that hypothetical might not look so far-fetched in the months and year ahead.

One legacy of the Messi and Ronaldo era is that their relentless greatness meant they were not defined by World Cup success. Neither had scored a goal in the knockout stages prior to Qatar. In that respect, Mbappe finds himself in something of a throwback position. Another win on the biggest stage would elevate his club deeds rather than garnish them.

DECOURCY: Is Lionel Messi the best male sports athlete of all-time?

If Mbappe is able to end the Messi fairytale, his achievements would stand in comparison with another of the very best. Backing up a World Cup win as a teenager, having scored in the final, with another four years later is something only Pele has done previously. Injury restricted the great man’s role in Brazil’s 1962 triumph, while Mbappe has been pivotal once again. 

As such, there is more than one player gunning for sporting immortality this weekend. If he helps France go back-to-back, Mbappe will have a claim to a place alongside Messi and the other all-time greats. Until he can banish the impression of uncompetitive drift that surrounds his club career, the World Cup remains his surest route to the very top.

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