Messi and Mbappe have an uncomfortable rivalry defined by mutual respect
At some point on Sunday night, perhaps just before the World Cup final, but certainly once it’s over, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe will embrace and a thousand photographers will rush into Lusail Stadium to capture the moment.
Depending on the outcome, it will be seen as bowing before the legend of the game, leaving the World Cup stage as winner last – or as a reluctant but respectful passing of the torch, from Messi to Mbappe, the reigning world champion. The second time at the age of 23.
Then the two would return to their teammates, one group ecstatic in celebration and the other miserable. This will be the last time Messi and Mbappe see each other before they are reunited at Paris Saint-Germain in a week or so.
This isn’t the first time two club mates have faced each other in a World Cup final. It has been a regular event since 1990, when history was made by Stuttgart duo Guido Buchwald (West Germany) and Jose Basualdo (Argentina). But it will be the first time that a World Cup final brings out two fellow rivals with anything like the world-class features of Messi and Mbappe.
Qatar collected them, of course. PSG’s emergence as a global powerhouse, like much in the modern game, is the product of investment from the Middle East. Having made Paris Saint-Germain and the 2022 World Cup central focuses of its soft power strategy, Qatar can lay claim to the two superstars who will get more attention than anyone else when the massive global television audience tunes in to watch the final – and on Qatar National Day no less.
Messi is ubiquitous in Doha – his name on the back of almost every Argentine jersey you see, his image staring at you from buildings and billboards and even local telecom company advertisements – and it’s the name on everyone’s lips at Sunday’s final.
I have felt that this is his World Cup, and he is based on the most wonderful finale. But France, as coach Didier Deschamps said Wednesday night after their semi-final victory over Morocco, “will do everything humanly possible so that that doesn’t happen.”
Mbappe included. He’s not the type to stand on ceremony for anyone, including Messi. Watching Messi at this World Cup was like seeing him as the leader of a group of players who put him on a pedestal. They are his subordinates, content – desperate – dancing to his tune. At PSG, this is not the case.
In some ways, Messi and Mbappe are unlikely to be teammates. Their skill sets are complementary, but PSG seem to have put the two together with a true star third in Neymar. In an age when so many coaches are determined to shy away from the cult of the individual, the Messi-Mbappe-Neymar axis represents something different.
in his column to the athleteFormer Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino described the difficulty of trying to absorb Messi, Mbappe and Neymar into the same offensive line.
“It’s difficult to compare this Argentine team to Paris Saint-Germain,” said Pochettino. “There, Mbappe and Neymar needed their space too, they also needed to feel like big players at the club. And sometimes other players had a hard time understanding whether they needed to play for Messi, play for Mbappe, or play for Neymar.
“Mbappe needs a team behind him to play for, and so do Neymar and Messi. That’s why they are all leaders in their national teams. Everyone knows that when these three are together, incredible, amazing things can happen on the pitch. But of course, it’s not easy to find The right balance.”
If anything, it seems like diplomacy on Pochettino’s part. Others said that the dynamics of Messi, Mbappe and Neymar was the biggest problem the former Tottenham Hotspur boss faced during his time in Paris. The most memorable line from one source was that the ‘Big Three’ were ‘forced to share things they didn’t want to share’ – whether it be goals, assists, penalties, attention or flattery.
It is known that Mbappe’s relationship with Neymar is embarrassing. An on-field dispute over penalty kick duties during a match against Montpellier in August may have been the main flashpoint, but tensions between the pair predate that incident and continue to fester. Mbappe and Messi’s relationship is more cordial – not close, but defined by mutual respect.
When Messi signed with Paris Saint-Germain, after Barcelona were unable to extend his contract due to financial constraints, Mbappe was said to be delighted at the prospect of playing alongside him. Indeed, Messi’s arrival was one of the factors that convinced the Paris Saint-Germain board that Mbappe might sign a new contract rather than join Real Madrid.
But there are pressure points. When Mbappe signed this massive new contract at Paris Saint-Germain last May, he became the most powerful figure in the dressing room, with the kind of direct line with the club hierarchy that Messi is at Barcelona.
Reports in Brazil suggested that Mbappe had been consulted in the summer about the club dismantling what was described as a South American league in the dressing room, while allowing Argentine teammates Angel Di Maria and Leandro Paredes to join Juventus (the latter on loan). .
As in any locker room, the cliques continue. Messi, a 35-year-old who speaks little French, is naturally closer to players like Neymar, Marquinhos, Marco Verratti and, perhaps surprisingly, his old Real Madrid rival Sergio Ramos. Likewise, Mbappe is naturally much closer to Moroccan full-back Achraf Hakimi than to older players from South America.
It was amusing when Ander Herrera, another summer departure, was asked about Messi-Mbappe’s dynamism last season. “Kylian will be the best player in the world for many years to come, but we all agree Leo is No. 1. Without a doubt,” said the midfielder, now on loan at Athletic Bilbao. “Mbappe has tremendous humility and a desire to learn from Leo.”
Dani Alves, who played with Messi at Barcelona and Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain, seemed to question that in a recent interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. He described Mbappe as “a phenomenon that he has not yet understood that those who play with him in attack are phenomena greater than him,” adding: “A great player must always know and understand who he plays with. You have to be smart to take advantage of the potential of Neymar and Messi, who are football geniuses.” .
Alves suggested that Mbappe “would score 150 goals” if he trusted Messi and Neymar more often with the ball.
A look at the data confirms that Messi and Neymar exchange more passes (22.7 per 90 minutes in the Champions League) than Mbappe and Neymar (14.5 per 90 minutes) or Messi and Mbappe (12.6 per 90 minutes). Their numbers in Ligue 1 reflect the same, if less pronounced, pattern.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, Messi exchanges more passes every 90 minutes with Mbappe than he did with Luis Suarez or Neymar in 2014-15, at the height of Barcelona’s “MSN” partnership.
Messi has helped Mbappe score six goals in Ligue 1 this season, and while the obvious response is that Ligue 1 is weaker than La Liga, the pair have worked well in Europe as well; For every 90 minutes in the Champions League this season, they have combined to create 2.0 chances. Again, this surpasses the figure of Messi Neymar (1.9) or Messi Suarez (1.7) for Barcelona in their victorious Champions League campaign in 2014-15. Mbappe gets his share of goals.
It can’t be easy for Mbappe to share the limelight with Messi and Neymar, but in some ways he can learn from Neymar’s experience. When the Brazil striker left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain on a world record transfer in 2017, the party line was that he felt he needed to escape Messi’s shadow in order to thrive on an individual basis.
If anything, it was in his first few years in Paris that he discovered that life under Messi was more rewarding than he realized. Certainly when it comes to the Ballon d’Or conversation, Neymar was more prominent in his Barcelona days.
Messi was good to Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain. Mbappe is good for Messi too. But there has been a consistent line from Mbappe’s camp who believe he is better suited to playing alongside a more traditional striker, perhaps of the Olivier Giroud type. Messi, for his part, is clearly at his happiest when playing quick-witted and agile strikers, with Mbappe perhaps being the most extreme example.
The irony of all this, particularly when it comes to Mbappe’s suggestion of being the pick-topper at PSG, is that it’s hard to imagine either player being there long-term.
Just months after signing the new contract, it was revealed that Mbappe was feeling remorse and was considering renewing his endeavors to join Real Madrid. As for Messi, the athlete He revealed in October that he was very attracted to the idea of joining MLS Inter Miami franchise when his contract with PSG expires at the end of the season.
Rather than being teammates – or rivals or adversaries – Messi and Mbappe seem destined to be remembered for generations.
At the age of 35, playing in his last World Cup, and considering moving to MLS, Messi is in the twilight of his career. So are other modern-day greats such as Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and Messi’s great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo. It is doubtful we will see any of them on the World Cup podium again.
A new generation is ready to take over, led by Mbappe, Erling Haaland and various others who show all the signs that they have grown up idolizing Messi and Ronaldo, trying to emulate their every move.
This World Cup final feels like the end of an era and the beginning of another. The sight of Messi and Mbappe in opposition is as much emblematic of this as it is of the Qatari influence that has brought about such unexpected changes to the landscape of the game over the past decade.
Sunday gives Mbappe the chance to prove he is ready to win the title. It also provides Messi with the opportunity to leave the World Cup stage with one last constant reminder of a talent that may not be outdone for a long time.
Whatever the outcome between France and Argentina, embracing the final whistle would be symbolic. None of the photographers in attendance will want to miss it.
(Top photo: Sam Richardson using Getty Images)
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