As Lionel Messi ascends to a tier of his own, Kylian Mbappé proves he isn't far behind

LUSAIL, QatarLionel Messi began his ride off into soccer’s golden sunset with teammates streaming across the field. He’d just scored the goal that Hollywood had scripted, in the 108th minute of a manic World Cup final, his last game on soccer’s biggest stage. Limbs flailed all around him. Friends mobbed him. An ear-splitting roar filled the Lusail Stadium. It crescendoed again as Messi wound up for an undercut pump of his right fist, and louder still as he spun to all sides of the arena, soliciting more noise, all part of a celebration of a would-be winner that lasted nearly two full minutes.

And all the while, standing at midfield, waiting patiently and knowingly as soccer saluted its king, was Kylian Mbappé.

Over three hours in Lusail on Sunday, Mbappé tolerated destiny. He watched his sport fawn over the greatest to ever play it. He then contrived his own audacious, alternate script. It co-starred King Leo and the man who’ll eventually dethrone him, as joint protagonists, in the greatest sporting story ever told.

Argentina's forward #10 Lionel Messi (L) walks past France's forward #10 Kylian Mbappe after he scored a goal from the penalty spot during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé displayed their brilliance in Sunday's World Cup final in Qatar. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Argentina 3, France 3, the World Cup final “for eternity,” was a glorious remix of Mbappé’s script and Hollywood’s. It had far too many characters and chapters to recall, too many twists and mind-blowing turns. It was nonsensical and unforgettable for many reasons, but most of all because it featured the two greatest players on the planet.

It crowned Messi, the now-undisputed greatest of all time.

In the process, it elevated Mbappé into a stratosphere that only Messi and a few others have occupied in soccer’s multi-century history.

It droned on with the score at 2-0 until, with the 80th minute nearing, Mbappé popped a ball over the top of the Argentine defense. It led to a penalty, which the 23-year-old converted, and which set the stage for this drama.

A minute later, Mbappé needed all of half a second to leave Argentine fullback Nahuel Molina in the dust. After he had, a ball floated toward him at the top of the box, and as it hung in the air, in a fleeting instant, Mbappé’s enchanting authority rippled up into the rafters of the Lusail Stadium. As he swiveled his hips, and announced his intentions, Argentine fans cowered in horror. Neutrals braced themselves for greatness. French fans erupted, a few thousand making the noise of millions, almost before Mbappé had swept a majestic volley past Emi Martinez. Because greatness has a way of feeling inevitable.

France's Kylian Mbappe scores his side's second goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec.18, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Kylian Mbappé netted a hat trick Sunday to bring his World Cup goalscoring tally to 12. He's 23. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Mbappé and Messi are entirely different players, but they share a superpower that strikes witnesses nearly every time each gets the ball. It stimulates anticipation and fear. Fans prepare for sorcery; opponents perk up to defend against it, which often isn’t possible. From the 82nd minute onward Sunday, Mbappé’s every touch flipped the game. Each one sent Argentine defenders backpedaling, scrambling to shield themselves from his pace, just as opponents have long tried to protect against Messi’s passing and dribbling.

And yet Mbappé still terrorized them. He seemingly pounced on every loose ball late in the second half, and drove at overmatched defenders. They looked petrified of him, hesitant to even attempt a tackle near the box for fear of being a split-second slow and conceding a clumsy penalty.

He also checked back onto his right foot and curled in delightful crosses that nearly latched onto Randal Kolo Muani’s head. He jinked and juked into and out of defensive cul-de-sacs. He manufactured danger from almost nothing. In the 124th minute of an unfathomably taxing game, he tied Cristian Romero into knots in the left corner, and cut into the box, and — a billion viewers thought in unison: no, he couldn’t, could he?

He would stay high and wide as Argentina possessed the ball, thereby stressing the Argentines instantaneously whenever they lost it. He lashed right-footed shots toward Martinez, and that, in the end, is why Messi’s ride into the sunset was delayed. One of Mbappé’s shots struck an Argentine hand. Mbappé completed his hat trick — the first in a World Cup final by a losing player — to send the game to penalties.

Messi ultimately rode into World Cup lore on the shoulders of teammates. He capped an unparalleled career with the missing trophy it deserved. He ended all rational GOAT debates with a second World Cup Golden Ball to go along with his seven Ballon d’Ors. He is a magician, the greatest goalscorer and creator and dribbler of his generation. He now has the World Cup that Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t. He already had the longevity and consistency that Diego Maradona didn’t, against a level of competition that Pelé never confronted. He is in a tier of his own.

Argentina's Lionel Messi scores his side's third goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Lionel Messi's second goal Sunday, and seventh in Qatar, briefly put Argentina ahead 3-2. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

But as he pranced around the Lusail pitch Sunday night, reveling in the moment that he called a “childhood dream,” there sat the one adult man capable of someday equaling him. There sat Mbappé, slumped in the French dugout, his jersey pulled over his face. He later moved to the worn-out grass and plopped himself there, to watch the celebrations he wished were his. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, tried to console him, to no avail. Mbappé spared no thought for a World Cup final hat trick — a World Cup final hat trick! Earlier in the tournament, he had said that for him, “the World Cup is an obsession,” and he hadn’t won it. The Golden Boot was little consolation.

But it was a precursor for the decade to come. Messi isn’t retiring, but will someday fade. Mbappé, meanwhile, is rising just as rapidly as Messi once did. At age 23, he has scored more goals and accumulated more assists than 23-year-old Messi had. He is on pace to smash France’s goalscoring record by his mid-20s.

“He will beat all the records,” teammate Olivier Giroud said a couple weeks ago. Teammates and coaches speak of Mbappé’s insatiable drive for both team and individual success — which makes him, in the words of France assistant coach Guy Stephán, “an off-the-planet player.”

Messi is, too, and that, in a nutshell, was the recipe for the greatest World Cup game ever played. It was two very good teams each with a peerless catalyst.

“He’s the best in history, no doubt about it, and he showed that in the game,” Argentina midfielder Rodrigo de Paul said of Messi. “He’s been showing it during the whole tournament.” Messi didn’t get his storybook goal but he got his storybook ending; his lovely moments on the field with his children; his chance to replicate that Diego Maradona photo; his ride through Lusail, atop the team bus, toward the moonlight.

Mbappé, meanwhile, respectfully sulked back to his locker room, through a post-match interview area, and out of the spotlight, for now.

But he is coming. He is already here, of course, and has been for years, but his time is coming. Only the Messiah could put his ascent to soccer’s throne on hold.

This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.