Mbappe vs Messi is the World Cup final that football fans deserve

When Argentina and France met in the Round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the two traditional football powerhouses produced the most exciting game of the tournament. He had it all, from an incredible 80-yard run that led to an early penalty, to a stunning 30-yard strike that tied the score at 1-1 just before halftime, to multiple lead changes, and everything in between. In total, La Albiceleste and Les Bleus each produced seven goals on the day, with France winning 4-3.

For Lionel Messi and Argentina, the final whistle at the Kazan Arena may have sounded the death knell. The goat turned 31 just days before kick-off, and a player in his 30s is rarely as productive — or physically kind to him — as his 20s. The World Cup has again come and gone without Messi lifting the magnificent gold trophy and malachite to the heavens in praise of the football gods. He won’t get another chance to do so until he’s 35.

For France and captain Kylian Mbappe, the final whistle represented something very different – proof that the French national team was once again among the world’s elite national teams and proof that the changing of the guard may be underway. Messi helped keep Argentina in the match, but both Mbappe goals propelled France into the quarter-finals – and eventually, the World Cup title.

Of course, reports of Messi’s death proved extremely premature. In the 141 league matches he has played since that humiliating defeat, Messi has scored 104 goals and added 67 assists for a goal-breaking tackle rate of 1.2 per game. Over the same time period, meanwhile, Mbappe has scored 118 goals and made 38 assists in 129 domestic league matches – equaling Messi’s outrageous goalscoring rate of 1.2 per game.

Now, we all get to watch them face off one last time on the biggest stage of the World Game. For Argentina, it will be the first World Cup title since Diego Maradona and company brought home from Mexico’s Estadio Azteca in 1986. For France, it will mean the first repeat World Cup champions since Brazil successfully won it in 1962. For Messi, It will cement his legacy as the greatest player to ever play the sport. For Mbappe, it may raise some question whether the former’s claim is legitimate – and sow the seeds of an argument to the contrary.

Before the final, we wanted to track each team’s trajectory from the last World Cup to the present using Elo ratings. Argentina finished 2018 with an Elo rating of 1915, making them the 13th best team in the world – below the likes of Croatia, Switzerland and Uruguay. But each following year, Argentina climbed higher and higher in the rankings – eventually finding itself number one in the world, as of December 14, 2022.

It was a much different story for France: Since winning the World Cup in 2018, Les Bleus has finished each year with a top 3 Elo rating – despite a relatively lackluster showing at Euro 2021.

Before the tournament even started, FiveThirtyEight World Cup model saw Brazil as the favorite to win the entire title. (In fact, the model believed that until Brazil were knocked out by Croatia on penalties.) France and Argentina aren’t far behind, however, with third- and fourth-best odds ahead of the tournament, respectively. Whether based on Elo ratings or our model, two of the four best national teams in the world – one each from the world’s two preeminent confederations, CONMEBOL and UEFA – are about to win football’s biggest prize.

Thanks to Messi’s immortality – and despite Mbappe’s meteoric rise – the changing of the guard remains incomplete. Maybe all of that will change on Sunday. Or maybe it never changes. There is only one way to find out.

Check out the latest World Cup predictions.

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