After Sunday night, Lusail Stadium will turn into something else. The precise nature of its repurposing is vague: “civic facilities” including homes, shops and health clinics are among the proposals, although that will require populating an area whose eeriness strikes hardest on those days when World Cup crowds’ attentions lie elsewhere. But a legend has been built so perhaps they will come.
Qatar and its flagship venue have the showpiece they craved and demanded: this will for ever be the arena of Lionel Messi against Kylian Mbappé, two different yet markedly similar versions of football’s present, the world’s best forwards wrestling for a hat-trick of garlands. The story transcends physical structures, edifices, the existence of the pitch on which it will have taken place. It will stay told in the air.
For Qatar, that is the point. Its tournament will be stalked by shadows and the whisper of death long after its conclusion but the final that it hosts could not make a louder noise. You may not care for France or Argentina, neither of whose sides are exceptional by historical standards, but you can form a view on whether Messi is the best player of all time or a take on Mbappé’s suitability to outstrip him. You can relate either to the polyvalent, enduring wizardry of one or the explosive, emphatic talent of the other. This is not Morocco facing Croatia. The contest spans all football’s vast, textured, endlessly competing layers of consumption.
Choose your legend: Messi adding diamonds to a career already adorned with an aureate crown, probably winning the golden ball simultaneously and maybe the golden boot, too, all while pulling rank over his Paris Saint‑Germain teammate; alternatively Mbappé tears a trail down the sides of Argentina’s centre-backs and cements the new order. There is no escaping the context even if it bows to a modern obsession with individuals. Both players could operate on the periphery and these alternative endings would still overpower any others.
Realistically they will be front and centre. Rip these two out of their respective national teams, along with much of the past month’s football, and there is little else to stir the soul. In that sense they mirror Qatar, whose lights and trappings often fail to plaster over an essential lack of substance. So much of Argentina’s game is geared towards giving Messi, often floating off camera but never absent, the platform to deliver; France know that when Mbappé comes to life there is a far greater chance everyone around him will, too.
One of them has to lose and, for the romantic, the idea of seeing Messi sign off from international football on an ellipsis is anathema. Few players have adapted their game, become several stars in one, like him. Four years ago, when Mbappé was seeing Argentina off in the second round, the absence of a World Cup appeared certain to be the only blemish on his career.
This time, with up to 35,000 Argentinians turning stadiums into places of worship, he has produced moments as varied and deific as the impeccable finishes that breached Mexico and Australia, the pass of the tournament to Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands and the exhibition of sheer speed, strength and precision that roasted Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol. It has been the full suite.
Will Mbappé prove so adaptable when the speed deserts him? It may not really matter if he becomes, albeit just by a couple of days, the only player bar Pelé to have won two World Cups at 23. An injury-struck France were forced to recalibrate for their tilt at retaining the trophy and, were it not for Mbappé’s goals and direct involvements in several more, they would have stumbled along the way. The image of six Morocco defenders in his vicinity while he unleashed the early shot, blocked but leading to Theo Hernandez’s semi-final opener, was faintly reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s famous queue of Belgians. Whatever Mbappé may become in future, barely anyone can cope with him now.
When Messi signed for PSG in August 2021 the club’s president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, said the world would be “shocked, honestly, at the numbers we have” around projected revenues from the deal. The figures need no crunching to know it has paid off handsomely. Qatar Sports Investments’ takeover of the serial Ligue 1 winners was only ever heading this way, via another sure thing in the 2017 arrival of Mbappé from Monaco. It has not yet brought a Champions League, and this year’s delicate to-and-fro over Mbappé’s future was a rare sign of fragility, but in Argentina and France they always had the right insurance bets.
Pairing the world’s most gifted forward with his heir apparent, along with the more divisive figure of Neymar, was intended as a fail-safe plan to microwave the highest level of success for Qatar’s club project. But it also ensured those players were inextricably linked with the nation when its $220bn exercise in soft power and diplomacy took centre stage. They have both delivered, and little that occurs in Lusail this weekend will change that. Shocks and underdog stories have provided welcome diversions, opening genuinely healthy discussions about football’s distribution of power, but only two individuals’ names will cut through the hubbub.
“He is an amazing player behaving like a normal player,” Mauricio Pochettino said of Messi’s everyday demeanour during his time managing PSG. In the next breath he praised Mbappé’s curiosity, openness and willingness to absorb information. Mbappé, in particular, has drawn criticism for his perceived ego, and an unabashed courting of Real Madrid did not go down well in France.
But, just as for Messi when he relocated to Barcelona at 13, his future has always been plotted well in advance. There is little anecdotal evidence that Mbappé is an awkward, troublesome figure. The overall impression is of two impossibly gifted players, removed from mainstream society but never disdainful of it, at the end of a road Qatar has paved for them.
Once it is all done, Lusail will turn to the business of ascribing its otherworldly surroundings some kind of concrete, longer‑term meaning. “Messi community hall” has a nice ring to it; perhaps “Mbappé public gardens” has been tossed around in development meetings. The world must keep turning but the imprint of Sunday’s meeting will be far‑reaching and indelible.