Moscow: Teenagers have seldom flourished at the World Cup but a 19-year-old Frenchman took the 21st edition by storm in Kazan on Saturday. Kylian Mbappe tore Lionel Messi’s Argentina into shreds with his pace, movement and goals. A combination of Brazilian Ronaldo and his compatriot Thierry Henry, the exciting Mbappe is here to stay.
The statistic that Pele had been the last teenager before Mbappe to score a brace in a World Cup knockout round way back in 1958 says something about the event’s preference for experience. The 19-year-old Frenchman emulated the great Brazilian to inspire his country’s first competitive win over Argentina.
With only a couple of club seasons in top flight under his belt, the Frenchman has scored three goals here. More than his brace against Argentina, the manner in which he scored them stood out. Mbappe set the tone for the match with a blistering run from his own half that would culminate in a penalty. Although Argentina defender Marcos Rojo had been standing well ahead of the forward in his own half, he couldn’t catch him. Rojo eventually resorted to non-football methods to stop Mbappe. Few contemporary footballers can run so fast with the ball.
Argentina goalkeeper Franco Armani could have stopped Mbappe’s first goal, which gave France a 3-2 lead, but the beauty wasn’t the finish but in the build-up. The way the PSG forward buried a defender by shifting the ball from his right foot to the left inside the box was exquisite. Doing that in such a small space in the midst of opponents wasn’t easy. He would then score with a brilliant first-time shot to put France 4-2 ahead. One from the left and another from the right meant a blow to Argentina’s solar plexus, and also the birth of a new star.
It would be better for Messi if he stopped playing for Argentina for his sake as well as for the sake of his legion of fans all over the world. The beautiful game becomes a torturous one when he pulls on the Argentina jersey. He never seems to enjoy playing for his country. Football is all about joy and there is no point in playing it if one doesn’t derive pleasure out of it.
Imbalance in the squad plotted Argentina’s downfall in the last three World Cups. They had four attacking players — Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus) and Angel Di Maria (PSG) — who had come to the World Cup as league champions with their respective clubs. But Argentina didn’t have a classy midfielder who could unlock defence with a perceptive pass. The World Cup has certainly diminished Messi’s aura as a result of his failure to score a goal in a knockout match over four editions. It would be better if he steps aside from Argentina duty to allow someone else to carry the nation’s hopes.
Ronaldo’s plight is similar to Messi’s at the World Cup but he has always played in a weaker team than his great rival. And, donning the Portugal jersey doesn’t weigh Ronaldo down. At least, he has won a Euro. Messi, on the other hand, has no senior title. For both Ronaldo and Messi, the World Cup is unrequited love.