After Argentina easily dispatched Croatia in the World Cup semifinals, the prophecy of Lionel Messi lifting the one piece of hardware that’d separate him from many of soccer’s other all-time greats is one win away. He’ll have that chance in what’s likely his final game on the sports’ biggest stage. It would either be a David versus Goliath matchup with Morocco upsetting its third European power in a row — including two of its former colonizers — or a pair of Goliaths vying for the global title.
Defending champions France ended the Cinderella run of Morocco and has the chance to become the first back-to-back World Cup champions since Brazil in 1958 and 1962. The World Cup only takes place every four years, but John F. Kennedy was U.S. president the last time the feat was achieved. After all the parity in Qatar, both finalists did lose a game in the group stage, but two predictable championship contenders have made it to the final step.
This is a rematch from the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals. France was the last team to eliminate Messi from the World Cup, when the French had a 4-3 comeback win in Russia. Argentina proved to be France’s toughest test as wins over Belgium and Croatia came after. The Argentines were in the 2014 World Cup Final, the last tournament to take place in South America, and lost to Germany in extra time. A Messi shot just curled wide and an offside decision against Gonzalo Higuaín kept Argentine hands off the trophy.
With all the talk of this being Messi’s time, and he’s shown how amazing he still can be in this tournament, it’s odd to say the defending champions have flown under the radar. France fought off early adversity against Australia to win its opener 4-1. That game might have a lasting memory of the group stage’s most important contests. Not only did it inspire the Aussies to win two straight and advance to the knockout stage over tournament dark horse Denmark, but the unusual trend of France either being spectacular or a tremendous disappointment at a World Cup evaporated. And let’s not pretend like France’s loss to Tunisia mattered way less than Argentina’s shocking loss to Saudi Arabia. Maybe it made Messi and friends desperate from the jump. But they still lost on the global stage to the second-lowest-ranked team according to FIFA in Qatar.
And on the list of soccer’s GOATs, Kylian Mbappé is well on his way to joining that exclusive group. And he already has a World Cup title, announcing himself on the world stage four years ago as more than just a wunderkind, but the guy to take Messi’s mantle. And they’re currently teammates at Paris Saint-Germain. Mbappé being a two-time World Cup champion on the eve of his 24th birthday would put him in a rare position of being so decorated and young. That scenario would obviously deny Messi that elusive world title. Tomorrow’s contest will be integral to both of their legacies.
Both teams have no injuries to report ahead of the game, despite France confirming an illness had spread through the team. That’s great news for both teams, but sets up what might be the biggest, and maybe only, hole in Messi’s game: An unbreakable midfield. One line of defense, no matter how strong, has proven to be unfit to stop him alone. The Netherlands couldn’t, and Croatia didn’t. To be fair, no one really has in this tournament. France’s midfielders have locked down games against stiff competition. Look at the England game. The British didn’t score from the normal run of play. Only a Harry Kane penalty kick tied the game and a Kane penalty miss sealed the French’s place in the semifinals.
Let’s not pretend like the final, just like this entire tournament, hasn’t been revolving around Messi and everything and everyone else is playing second fiddle. This game is all about Argentina’s No. 10 and whether he wins a World Cup or will retire without one in his trophy case. It’s far from a sure thing, even just 90 minutes away. Messi would never admit it, but I’d bet he’d rather see Morocco, which lost to Croatia in the third-place game on Saturday, than France at the final door. Messi won’t have to win it alone. The chances of him playing poorly directly correlates with France’s chances to win. Unfortunately, I see France denying Messi at the final step again, even with him scoring first. France beats Argentina 2-1.