The sound of the final whistle had not even reached the upper tiers of Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday by the time the World Cup final had received its billing.
It was not France vs Argentina, but a number 10 versus number 10; Paris Saint-Germain teammates tied for the Golden Boot; one approaching the end of his extended reign over football versus one who already has one hand on his throne; a man desperately vying for World Cup glory versus a boy who could end up a two-time world champion by the age of 23.
It is Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappe.
But if you blank out the noise, you will notice that there is more nuance to the narrative.
Mbappe and Messi are the obvious figureheads of their teams but the personas they have adopted at this World Cup are contrasting.
For Mbappe, the 2018 World Cup win projected him into superstardom and made him untouchable in the eyes of the French. But his transfer saga involving Real Madrid, coupled with acts of petulance despite signing a mega-contract at PSG, lowered the stead he was held in.
“He is still very much well-liked but I would say the perception has changed a little bit along with his status as one of the world’s best footballers. Somebody who is incredibly driven by team goals, but by personal goals as well,” said Matt Spiro, author of Sacre Bleu: Zidane to Mbappé – A Football Journey.
“I don’t think he’s the easiest guy to integrate in a collective.”
The focus on the collective is a key tenet of French manager Didier Deschamps’s philosophy. In the past year, squad harmony has been at its lowest since he took over in 2012.
Ahead of the Euros last year, Mbappe had a public falling out with Olivier Giroud after the AC Milan striker suggested Mbappe did not pass to him. There were reports of infighting following the team’s exit to Switzerland at the tournament. Since March this year, Mbappe has been at loggerheads with the French Association over image rights and in September refused to participate in a team photoshoot for the same reason.
An image has been formed of a supremely talented player who, to his detriment, was aware of how supremely talented he is.
The spate of injuries to key players furthered the belief that this France side was ripe for implosion. But the remarkable thing about their World Cup campaign is not the manner in which they have digested these setbacks or even the way they’ve eased into the final without ever hitting second gear.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 14, 2022
The quiet around the camp is what has been most impressive. There is a machine-like nature to their performances and the players all seem to be running on silent autopilot.
It is something Mbappe has bought in with vigour. He made a decision to not talk to the press during the tournament and agreed to pay the fine for missing the news conference that is requisite for players.
He did not want anything to distract him from football. What brought this on? Spiro believes the key to this is Deschamps.
“Mbappe has enormous respect for Deschamps, everyone does in France. There is one clear boss in the French national team and that’s not the case with PSG and hasn’t been the case for quite some years,” he said.
“It’s a different dynamic and Deschamps wouldn’t hesitate to leave Mbappe out or move him to a different position if he thought that was better for the team and that’s not always the case at PSG.”
Mbappe also appears to have recognised that to enhance his legacy at tournaments like the World Cup, the strength of the collective is key. To do that, compromise is required. He may be the crown jewel of this French side but his shine is no longer blinding for his colleagues.
While Mbappe has needed to buckle down and come to terms with being one of the 11, Messi needs to transcend being just a teammate. Belatedly perhaps, he has recognised that for the Albiceleste, he needs to be the spiritual leader.
He has expressed as much emotion in the past month as he has perhaps in the rest of his career. But, it feels strangely necessary for Messi to wear his heart on his sleeve if Argentina are to have any chance of winning.
Louis van Gaal’s remarks about how the Netherlands stymied Messi in the 2014 World Cup semifinal were taken as a sign of disrespect and used to fuel the fire of the team. Yes, the heckling of Wout Weghorst and the pointed celebrations in van Gaal’s direction felt uncharacteristic. But perhaps it was just him letting off steam.
While Mbappe has shunned the media, Messi has embraced it. He was the only player from the Argentina side to front up to the media after their loss to Saudi Arabia. Following the win over Mexico, he spoke of the “long days” that followed their loss in the opening game and how a new World Cup starts for them.
Before the semifinal, he spoke of Diego Maradona.
“Diego is watching us from heaven. He is pushing us and I really hope this stays the way until the end,” he said.
The squad seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the narrative of it being Messi’s last chance to win the World Cup. It has given the team purpose. There is single-mindedness in their efforts to help him win the World Cup.
On the pitch too, Messi binds this team together: He is the chief orchestrator, making the opposition dance to his tune and teammates move to his rhythms. He has been involved in nine of the 12 goals they have scored so far. He simplifies the task of the midfielders by taking away creative responsibility and allows them to focus on their primary task – shielding him.
He feeds on the loose balls and serves them on platters for the strikers.
The captain has been better than the team at this World Cup. It is an important distinction to make. Messi has been otherworldly so far in the tournament.
And therein lies a key difference between Messi and Mbappe. France can win the World Cup even if Mbappe is kept quiet. Argentina have no hope of winning if Messi does not turn up.