Lionel Messi v Kylian Mbappe: a World Cup final to relish no matter whether you're supporting Argentina or France - Stuart Rayner comment

No matter how it ends, seeing Lionel Messi play World Cup football for the final time will bring more than a twinge of sadness but really, the over-riding feeling should be of gratitude.

Because whilst the arguments rage over who is better, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi or Diego Maradona, Messi or Pele, there is one thing which is surely beyond dispute: as football fans we are incredibly fortunate to be alive when we are.Every era has its great players and already Messi's successors are moving towards centre stage. Even though his France team-mate Antoine Griezmann has arguably had an even better tournament, there is no doubt Kylian Mbappe looks like a true heir to the title of world's greatest footballer.

As far as the headline writers are concerned, this Argentina versus France final will either be won by one of the legends of the game, or one of the next legends.

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It is impossible to really know how Messi stacks up against the likes of Ferenc Puscas, Alfredo Di Stefano, Stanley Matthews, Pele, Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff or Diego Maradona.

Lionel Messi celebrates after their sides third goal by Julian Alvarez of Argentina helped knock out Croatia. (Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)Lionel Messi celebrates after their sides third goal by Julian Alvarez of Argentina helped knock out Croatia. (Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Lionel Messi celebrates after their sides third goal by Julian Alvarez of Argentina helped knock out Croatia. (Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Even comparisons with the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho are difficult.

But really, who was better than who does not really matter. They were all amazing players, and who you prefer is just a matter of personal preference.

What matters is we got to marvel at Messi. Granted, Ronaldo might be tarnishing his reputation a touch in his latter years, but it cannot change the fact that he too is a generational talent.

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But everyone who loves football in 2022 will at least have seen Messi - and Ronaldo, and Modric - on the television.And that is the big difference with the likes of Puscas, Di Stefano, Matthews, Pele, Eusebio, Charlton, Best, Beckenbauer, Cruyff or Maradona. They played in eras where you might only see them every four years when World Cups were on the television, for some of the later Europeans every two years with European Championships. Even the English players would only be shown occasionally, on Cup final day and the odd Match of the Day slot for their clubs.

France's forward Kylian Mbappe (Picture: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)France's forward Kylian Mbappe (Picture: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
France's forward Kylian Mbappe (Picture: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Every professional game Messi has played, every goal he has scored, has been captured on television and even though almost all of them have been played in a different country, there is still a good chance that one way or another, you will have had access to his best bits. All his finest goals have been recorded for posterity. Your grandchildren and their grandchildren will never have to take your word for it like they might with some of the others.

We are no longer watching peak Messi, rather a little bloke who wanders around most of the time like a Sunday morning player clearing his head after a heavy night. It only makes the flashes of brilliance even more exciting.

Whether Messi will get his fairytale ending remains to be seen. Modric, Ronaldo, Louis van Gaal, Dani Alves and possibly Neymar all missed theirs during this tournament.

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If he does, it will certainly not be for a lack of effort from team-mates desperate to give him the send-off he deserves. Julian Alvarez has emerged as a star in his own right at centre-forward but his presence has made it easier for the little genius to flourish. Enzo Fernandez has emerged in midfield, doing some of the dirty work Angel di Maria is finding harder as his swansong approaches, Nicolas Otamendi is a typical Argentinian centre-back.

Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday fans might recognise the bloke in goal, and take pride in the little part loans spells at their clubs played in Emiliano Martinez's development.

A France win would be equally fantastical. Already only one of three players to lift the World Cup as player and manager, Didier Deschamps could become the first coach to retain it since Vittorio Pozzo in 1938.

Ludicrously under-rated, he has done it despite the reigning Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema picking up an injury.

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But a country whose footballers either seem to spectacularly fall out or spectacularly perform as soon as a World Cup gets up and running have gone for option two.

Griezmann has been transformed from a good striker to a brilliant box-to-box midfielder - no goals but plaudits coming out of his ears.

Mbappe has just been Mbappe. It could go either way.

In a tournament which has not so much defied logic at times as laughed in its face, best not to try and over-think it. Assuming you are not French or Argentinian, just sit back and enjoy it for what it is - quite possibly the last chance you will get to watch the seemingly USA-bound Messi on a truly elite stage, another opportunity to see the emergence of a new great in Mbappe.

The way this tournament has come about is grubby and underhand, but park that and just enjoy the spectacle.