Messi, Mbappe and an uncomfortable rivalry defined by mutual respect
Oliver Kay, Dec 17, 2022
At some point on Sunday evening, possibly just before the World Cup final but certainly once it’s over, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe will embrace and a thousand photographers at Lusail Stadium will rush to capture the moment.
Depending on the result, it will be seen as a genuflection before a legend of the game, leaving the World Cup stage as a winner at last — or as a reluctant but respectful passing of the flame, from Messi to Mbappe, a world champion for the second time at the age 23.
Then the two of them will return to their team-mates, one group ecstatic in celebration, the other disconsolate. That will be the last Messi and Mbappe see of each other before they are reunited at Paris Saint-Germain in a week or so.
This is nowhere near the first time two club-mates have faced each other in a World Cup final; it has been a regular occurrence since 1990, when history was made by the Stuttgart duo of Guido Buchwald (West Germany) and Jose Basualdo (Argentina). But this will be the first time a World Cup final has brought into opposition two club-mates with anything like the global profiles of Messi and Mbappe.
Qatar brought them together, of course. PSG’s emergence as a global force is, like so much else in the modern game, a product of investment from the Middle East. Having made PSG and the 2022 World Cup two central planks of its soft-power strategy, Qatar can stake a claim to the two superstars who will command more attention than anyone else when an enormous global television audience tunes in to watch the final — and on Qatar National Day, no less.
Who will be victorious on Sunday? (Photo: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
Messi is everywhere in Doha — his name on the back of almost every Argentina shirt you see, his image staring back at you from buildings, billboards, even adverts for the local telecom company — and his is the name on everyone’s lips going into Sunday’s final.
It has felt like it is his World Cup, building towards the most glorious denouement. But France, as their coach Didier Deschamps said on Wednesday night after their semi-final victory over Morocco, “will do everything humanly possible for that not to happen”.
That includes Mbappe. He is not the type to stand on ceremony for anyone, Messi included. To watch Messi at this World Cup has been to see him as the captain of a group of players who have placed him on a pedestal. They are subservient to him, content to — desperate to — dance to his tune. At PSG, it just isn’t like that.
In some ways, Messi and Mbappe are unlikely team-mates. Their skill sets are complementary but it feels almost decadent for PSG to have put the two of them together with a third genuine superstar in Neymar. In an age where so many coaches are determined to move away from the cult of the individual, the Messi-Mbappe-Neymar axis represents something different.
In his column for The Athletic, former PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino described the difficulty of trying to accommodate Messi, Mbappe and Neymar in the same forward line.
“It’s difficult to compare this Argentina team to PSG,” Pochettino said. “There, Mbappe and Neymar needed their space, too, need to feel like they were big guys at the club. And sometimes the other players had a difficult time understanding if they needed to play for Messi, or play for Mbappe, or play for Neymar.
“Mbappe needs to have a team behind him to play for him, but so do Neymar and Messi. That’s why they are all leaders in their national teams. Everyone knows that when those three are together, amazing, unbelievable things can happen on the pitch. But of course, it’s not easy to find the right balance.”
If anything, that sounds diplomatic on Pochettino’s part. Others have said the Messi-Mbappe-Neymar dynamic was the biggest problem the former Tottenham Hotspur manager faced during his time in Paris. A line that sticks in the memory from one source was that the “big three” were “forced to share things they didn’t want to share” — whether that was goals, assists, penalties, attention or adulation.
Mbappe’s relationship with Neymar is known to be awkward; their on-pitch squabble over penalty duties during a game against Montpellier in August might have been the main flashpoint, but tensions between the pair pre-dated that incident and have continued to linger. Mbappe and Messi’s relationship is more cordial — not close, but defined by mutual respect.
When Messi signed for PSG, after Barcelona’s inability to extend his contract due to financial constraints, Mbappe was said to be delighted by the prospect of playing alongside him. Indeed, Messi’s arrival was one of the factors that persuaded PSG’s board that Mbappe might yet sign a new contract rather than join Real Madrid.
But there are pressure points. When Mbappe signed that enormous new contract at PSG last May, he became the most powerful figure in the dressing room, with the kind of direct line to the club hierarchy that Messi had at Barcelona.
Reports in Brazil suggested Mbappe was consulted in the summer over the club’s dismantling of what was described as a South American clique in the dressing room, with Messi’s Argentina team-mates Angel Di Maria and Leandro Paredes allowed to join Juventus (the latter on loan).
As in any dressing room, cliques persist. It is natural that Messi, a 35-year-old who speaks little French, is closer to players like Neymar, Marquinhos, Marco Verratti and, perhaps surprisingly, his old Real Madrid adversary Sergio Ramos. Equally, it is natural that Mbappe is far closer to Morocco full-back Achraf Hakimi than to the older players from South America.
It was interesting when Ander Herrera, another summer departure, was asked about the Messi-Mbappe dynamic last season. “Kylian will be the best player in the world for many years to come, but we all agree that Leo is No 1. No doubt,” the midfielder, now on loan at Athletic Bilbao, said. “Mbappe has an immense humility and desire to learn from Leo.”
Dani Alves, who played with Messi at Barcelona and Mbappe at PSG, seemed to question that in a recent interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. He described Mbappe as “a phenomenon who has not yet understood that those who play with him in attack are bigger phenomenons than he”, adding: “A great player must always know and understand who they are playing with. You have to be intelligent to take advantage of the potential of Neymar and Messi, who are two football geniuses.”
Alves proposed that Mbappe “would score 150 goals” if he were to trust Messi and Neymar with the ball more often.
A look at the data confirms that Messi and Neymar exchange far more passes (22.7 per 90 minutes in this Champions League) than Mbappe and Neymar (14.5 per 90 minutes) or Messi and Mbappe (12.6 per 90 minutes). Their numbers in Ligue 1 reflect the same pattern, albeit slightly less pronounced.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, Messi exchanges more passes per 90 minutes with Mbappe than he did with Luis Suarez or Neymar in 2014-15, at the height of Barcelona’s “MSN” partnership.
Messi has assisted Mbappe for six goals in Ligue 1 this season and, while the obvious rebuttal is that the French league is weaker than La Liga, the pair have worked well together in Europe, too; for every 90 minutes in this season’s Champions League, they have combined to create 2.0 chances. Again, that surpasses the figure for Messi-Neymar (1.9) or Messi-Suarez (1.7) for Barcelona in their victorious Champions League campaign in 2014-15. And Mbappe is getting his share of goals.
It cannot be easy for Mbappe to share the limelight with Messi and Neymar, but in some ways he can learn from Neymar’s experience. When the Brazil forward left Barcelona for PSG in a world record transfer deal in 2017, the party line was that he felt he needed to escape Messi’s shadow in order to thrive on an individual basis.
The trio of superstars at PSG’s disposal (Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
If anything, he discovered in his first few years in Paris that life in Messi’s shadow had been more beneficial than he realised. Certainly when it comes to the Ballon d’Or conversation, Neymar was far more prominent in his Barcelona days.
Messi has been good for Mbappe at PSG. Mbappe good for Messi, too. But there has been a persistent line from the Mbappe camp that he believes he is better suited to playing alongside a more orthodox centre-forward, perhaps an Olivier Giroud type. Messi, for his part, is clearly at his happiest when playing with quick-witted, fleet-footed forwards, of which Mbappe is perhaps the most extreme example.
The irony of all this, particularly when it comes to the suggestion of Mbappe calling the shots at PSG, is that it is hard to imagine either player being there for the long term.
Only months after he signed that new contract, it emerged that Mbappe was having regrets and thinking of renewing his push to join Real. As for Messi, The Athletic revealed in October that he is extremely attracted to the idea of joining MLS franchise Inter Miami when his contract at PSG expires at the end of the season.
Rather than as team-mates — or as rivals, or as opponents — Messi and Mbappe seem to be destined to be remembered as the leaders of their respective generations.
At 35, playing in his last World Cup, contemplating a move to MLS, Messi is in the twilight of his career. So are other modern greats such as Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and Messi’s great rival Cristiano Ronaldo. It is doubtful we will see any of them on the World Cup stage again.
A new generation is ready to take over, led by Mbappe, Erling Haaland and various others who show all the signs of having grown up idolising Messi and Ronaldo, trying to emulate their every move.
This World Cup final feels like it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. The sight of Messi and Mbappe in opposition is as symbolic of that as it is of the Qatari influence that has brought such unforeseen changes to the game’s landscape over the past decade.
Sunday gives Mbappe the chance to demonstrate that he is ready to take the crown. It also offers Messi the opportunity to leave the World Cup stage with one last, enduring reminder of a talent that might not be surpassed for a long, long time.
Whatever the outcome between France and Argentina, that embrace at the final whistle will be symbolic. None of the photographers present will want to miss it.
(Top image: Sam Richardson using Getty Images)
Before joining The Athletic as a senior writer in 2019, Oliver Kay spent 19 years working for The Times, the last ten of them as chief football correspondent. He is the author of the award-winning book Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius. Follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverKay