And, without a doubt, Argentina has produced two more for that sometimes fierce debate: Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
Maradona and Messi: World Cup legends
It is termed the Beautiful Game because of players like Maradona, who died in 2021, and Messi. Both displayed their brilliance on the pitch. One of my favorite stories about the late, great Diego was related by England star Gary Lineker, who relived his and his teammates’ incredulity while watching Maradona warm up with “impossible” keepie-uppies. “Everyone was awestruck by him.”
The current Argentine star is the closest anyone has come to replacing him. Messi also represented Barcelona, much more so, and with his abilities, interaction, and goal-scoring prowess, he has left just as many onlookers gaping for the latest superlative. In a nutshell, these are his World Cup performances leading up to the 2022 event.
The question that will never be fully answered is who is the greater of the two.
They played in different eras, on extremely different pitches, and under drastically different rules.
However, as the World Cup in Qatar comes to a conclusion, we may reflect on both of their World Cup careers for Argentina.
Let’s compare their records in FIFA’s showcase tournament to date (graphics courtesy of SofaScore), and you can make your own decision.
Argentina has already been named King of the World twice, in 1978 and 1986, as shown in the graphic below. Can a Messi-led side reach the top three and etch his name into the fabric of national identity?
Despite his ability to emulate Pelé, Kylian Mbappé behind Messi and Ronaldo
As is customary in the twenty-first century, a sporting legend passed the torch to the next generation on social media a few weeks ago.
Following his two World Cup goals against Poland, Kylian Mbappé tweeted in support of Pelé, the Brazilian great whose failing health has thrown a pall over the tournament.
“Pray for the King,” the young Frenchman said, tagging the three-time winner’s official account.
After congratulating Mbappé, the Brazilian graciously responded with a reference to another achievement by the Paris Saint-Germain striker.
“I’m delighted to see you ƅreaking another of my Cup records, my friend!” He responded.
Pelé was referring to Mbappé ƅreaking his World Cup record for most goals scored by a player under the age of 24, as his brace against the Eastern Europeans brought him to nine.
The record has stood for an astounding 60 years, a monument to how much Pelé accomplished at such a young age, which the sands of time may have hidden.
The Brazilian was two years younger than Mbappé, who lit up proceedings four years ago in Russia by storming the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
In both occasions, the young men were essential in bringing success to their country, and as the World Cup nears its conclusion, it appears that history will be repeated if France becomes the first team to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962.
However, as the potential of the Frenchman imitating the man regarded as one of soccer’s greatest ever players has emerged, there has been an odd lack of comparison between the duo.
Mbappé has been cast as the competition’s third or fourth most prestigious talent, trailing Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar Jr.
There are reasonable reasons why the final game of some excellent players is gaining attention, but there is a risƙ that we will overlook the incredible talent as a result.
When he went to the World Cup in 2006. Lionel Messi was a year older than Kylian Mbappé.
There were high hopes for the teenager at the event because he was an outstanding talent.
But, unlike the Frenchman, Messi couldn’t get into coach José Pékerman’s starting 11, restricted only to substitute appearances and a runout in the last group game which was virtually a Ԁead rubber.
Despite appearing to be one of the top teams in the early stages of the competition and scoring one of the greatest goals in World Cup history in the 6-0 thrashing of Serbia, the campaign was ultimately a letdown.
Argentina was eliminated in the quarter-finals by hosts Germany, in one of the tournament’s biggest upsets.
In the aftermath, Pékerman was attacked for leaving Messi on the bench during that game, but it was an inauspicious start to one of soccer’s great star’s participation in the World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo, a year older than his long-time adversary, debuted in the league in 2006.
The Portuguese great performed somewhat better than Messi as an ever-present in his country’s route to the semi-finals, but he was far from taking the event by storm.
Mbappé’s standout role in the 2018 triumph already puts him ahead of both men; the only obvious international parallel is Pelé.
A different game
The lack of focus on Mbappé also reflects how the game of soccer has evolved.
Even in the 1990s, the World Cup was regarded as the pinnacle of sport.
But, as Messi and Ronaldo emerged as its main talents in the mid-2000s, things began to shift.
The tremendous wealth created by European soccer as a result of the Champions League and Premier League’s international commercial success has made local soccer in other parts of the world ꜱtruggle to compete.
There is currently a divide between the standards played in talent hotspots like Brazil and Argentina and those played in Europe.
The world’s best promising kids virtually exclusively play their soccer there, and there is no chance of an established star leaving the continent.
As a result, the talent amassed by the finest club sides significantly outnumbers that of any international team. Every year, these all-star XIs compete in the Champions League, making the four-year World Cup cycle an alternate form of entertainment rather than a venue for the elite.
The respect Messi and Ronaldo have stems not from their international performances, which are inconsistent at best, but from their decade-long dominance of the club game.
Winning the trophy was not seen as an essential milestone for either player to cement their place as one of the game’s all-time greats, but rather the icing on an already glistening cake.
Within these constraints, Mbappé might be vital in delivering back-to-back World Cups but still needing to accomplish more on the field to deserve the acclaim of Messi and Ronaldo.
However, another guy, the Brazilian Ronaldo, sees Mbappé for what he is: the last true World Cup legend.
“He reminded me of when I played,” he said. “He knows how to use his ability, how to go faster than the other players and use that ability to assist or score.
“I think France is the favorite team now to win the World Cup. I said that before the World Cup starts and, for me, Mbappe is going to be the best player.”