With Mbappe at his heels, Messi may not be football’s GOAT for long
As one long-standing debate ended at Doha’s Lusail Iconic Stadium on Sunday night, another one began. Having led Argentina to triumph in the World Cup, Lionel Messi cemented his claim to being the greatest soccer player of all time. But on the field, his opposite number in the defeated French side, Kylian Mbappe, gave notice that he will be a contender for that title one day.
The pair are also at the opposite ends of their careers. Messi, 35, is in sight of the finish line; Mbappe, 23, has a long way to go. And since they play alongside professionally for Paris St. Germain in France’s Ligue 1, the younger man will have opportunities to test himself against the ageing genius on the same stage.
Messi, on the other hand, was competing with figures from the past. The previous GOAT was, as I have argued, his fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona. Before that was the Brazilian legend Pelé. Both had brilliant professional careers, but only won the title when they had lifted the World Cup. Messi’s pro record easily surpasses theirs — he has won the Ballon d’Or, awarded annually to the sport’s outstanding player, a record seven times. But the biggest prize eluded him until Sunday night.
It has been in his sights for over a decade. When I interviewed him for a Time Magazine cover story at the start of 2012, his eyes were already fixed on the World Cup in Brazil two years ahead, but there was a certain fatalism in his tone. “I’m going [to Brazil] because I want to be a champion and share the World Cup with my national team,” he said. “But if it doesn’t turn out that way, I can’t do anything about it.” Argentina lost to Germany in a closely contested final.
This time, though, Messi showed he could do something about it, scoring in every round of the competition, setting up goals for others and generally providing the kind of leadership that can raise a group of mostly mediocre talents into a collective that is much more than the sum of its parts. The last player who was able to do that in a World Cup? Diego Maradona.
And so the moment belongs to Messi — but it may only be a moment. Pelé and Maradona each enjoyed GOAT-dom for a couple of decades, but if Mbappe lives up to his promise, Messi will not long enjoy the title.
The young Frenchman already matches Messi’s achievements in the World Cup: He was part of the team that won the trophy in 2018, and has now experienced a second final. Given his age and the abundance of world-class talent in the French squad, he may have three more shots at the winner’s medal. The Argentine is unlikely to get another. Mbappe may even, like Messi, lead his national team.
But he has a much bigger gap to cover in the professional game. Mbappe’s mantelpiece doesn’t yet feature a Ballon d’Or (at his age, Messi already had two) nor has he won the Champions League, arguably the highest achievement in professional soccer (Messi won it four times, with his previous club, FC Barcelona).
The first opportunity may come next summer, when Mbappe is widely expected to leave the relatively weak French league to join one of the big clubs in England or Spain — Real Madrid is thought to be his first choice. If he can excel at that higher level, the soccer world will debate whether he can legitimately aspire to the title of best-ever player.
And it will have been fitting that the torch was passed in a game that is already being described as the greatest World Cup final of all time.
Until then, all hail the GOAT: Lionel Messi.
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