And with France’s 4-3 victory over Argentina, say goodbye to our last World Cup with Lionel Messi at the summit of the sport.It’s Kylian Mbappé’s world. We’re all just living in it—even Lionel Messi.
Mbappé became the first teenager to score more than one goal in a World Cup knockout match since Pelé in 1958, as he tallied twice and drew a penalty. When the final whistle sounded, the scoreboard read 4-3 in favor of Les Bleus, and no player was more responsible for the victory than the youngest player on the field.
Just a few minutes into the game, the 19-year-old Mbappé earned a penalty when he picked up a loose ball in the center of the field and exploded down the pitch, before being pulled to ground by group stage hero Marcos Rojo. After Antoine Griezmann calmly slotted it home in the 13th minute, France were content sitting back and waiting for their moment to attack on the counter. Just a few minutes later, Argentina watched helplessly as Mbappé sprinted through their defense to collect a long Paul Pogba pass, only to be taken down once again as he neared scoring position. Allow my colleague Jason Concepcion to illustrate what these rapid-strike counter-attacks looked like:
Argentina defenders trying to catch Mbappe pic.twitter.com/HBJ6J3reTB— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) June 30, 2018
Four minutes later, he collected an Olivier Giroud through ball on a break up the right flank, and drilled it past the Argentine keeper yet again. The goals, his second and third of the tournament, were enough to give France an insurmountable advantage.
Mbappé AGAIN!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 30, 2018
The 19-year-old gets his second of the game to put France up 4-2. pic.twitter.com/1mY2fN2MBc
By FiveThirtyEight’s metrics, Mbappé’s performance this summer most closely resembles Brazilian great Ronaldinho’s first World Cup in 2002, when the then-22 year old kept the Seleção’s hopes alive against England in the quarterfinals en route to their fifth championship. And while some would liken the French teen to his countryman Thierry Henry, a comparison to the Ballon d’Or winner seems more prescient. It’d be silly to say Saturday marked Mbappé’s breakout. After moving to Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco in the second-most expensive transfer in the sport’s history last summer, he made good on the hype, scoring 13 league goals and assisting on 9 others in 27 appearances for the French giants. But Saturday’s performance was perhaps the first iconic moment in a career that promises to be filled with them.
Mbappé puts France ahead!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 30, 2018
He collects the loose ball in the box and fires it home to make it 3-2 for Les Bleus. pic.twitter.com/gCdhCD5C0e
Coming into the tournament, expectations were high for the French team, and while they topped their group with seven points, the eye test didn’t match the results. Les Bleus scored just three goals in their round-robin matches, and only one—an Mbappé tap in against Peru—came from open play. Against a porous Argentine defense, they scored four. Saturday served as a notice to the rest of the field: If you give France space, they will destroy you.
Argentina learned that lesson, and thus ends their World Cup. After a disappointing group stage performance that was only escaped thanks to a wonder goal from Lionel Messi and a heroic strike from Marcos Rojo, questions lingered about whether or not La Albiceleste could put it together and challenge a more complete opponent like France. Having Messi gave the Argentines higher baseline expectations than they likely deserved, but Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala and Ángel Di María gave them a cabal of goalscorers unlike any other in the world. Of course, only one of them started against France.
In his 15th game in charge, Jorge Sampaoli—still pacing the sidelines after an alleged mutiny—rolled out his 15th different starting XI. Gone was Higuaín, who squandered a would-be winner against Nigeria in the group stage’s final minutes, as was Agüero, who spoke ill of Sampaoli following a disastrous loss to Croatia last Thursday. And though Sampaoli’s changes to the team sheet made some tactical sense—playing a 4-3-3, Messi as a false 9, impressive youngster Cristian Pavón and frail superstar Di María on the wings—it still didn’t work in practice. Messi seemed comfortable in his role, but without someone like Dybala (who has admitted he struggles playing next to the legend) to his side, or wingers cutting in from the outside (Di María and Pavón both played on the same side as their strong foot), most of Argentina’s attacks that originated from Messi’s boots were without purpose.
The Argentines never looked completely out of contention, but they didn’t ever seem comfortable either. They finished with just four points in a second-place finish in Group D, and their goal differential of minus-2 was far from inspiring. Still, Messi’s presence meant that anything was possible. Even on Saturday, when they trailed for most of the match, they looked as strong, if not stronger than their foes. They took more shots than their European counterparts (10-to-9) and had just as many on target (4). And while they controlled 60 percent possession and had almost 200 more completed passes, they struggled to create efficiently in the box.
Argentina’s failures to convert all tournament will be examined in the coming days, weeks and months, as will the play of their superstar, Lionel Messi, as it always is. Messi’s entire career with La Albiceleste has been defined by remarkable play that ends just short of the ultimate goal. Not once in his time with the senior team has he finished a tournament holding a trophy. He’s fallen in the Copa América finals three times, and once in the World Cup Final to Germany. To take this dysfunctional group of misfits past a World Cup favorite like France would have been difficult, and to carry them to a title would have been Herculean. Expecting him to do so was like expecting LeBron to lift his Cavaliers past the Warriors.
And so the peak of the greatest career in the history of the sport will end without international success. Four years from now in Qatar, when Messi is 35, he’ll probably still find himself in the center of Argentina’s attack; still probing and pushing, still looking for space where there isn’t any, still creating miracles when none seem plausible. The expectations will never change. And unfortunately for Messi, the results probably won’t either.
In four years, it’s hard to imagine that Messi will still be the best player in the world. At that point, maybe it’ll already be Mbappé, who, absurdly, will only be 23 in Qatar in 2022. But 2018 remains the focus for now. With the win, France moves on to the quarterfinals, where they’ll take on the winner of Saturday’s Uruguay v. Portugal tie. Either could pose a challenge for the presumptive favorites, with Uruguay bringing Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani to the table, and the defending European champions Portugal running out Cristiano Ronaldo. Still, France showed their strength on Saturday. No team remaining can match their counter-attacking ability, and few measure up defensively. If FiveThirtyEight is to be believed, the French have the third best chance of winning it all this summer. To do so will be difficult, and a potential matchup with World Cup favorite awaits Brazil in the semifinals. But 12 years ago, the two met in the quarters, and 20 years ago, they met in the final. Both times, France faced an uphill battle. Both times, they won.