in article about messi and 2022 world cup in qatar, illustration of messi holding the flag of argentina

Messi v. Mbappé: Is Comparison Killing the Great Soccer Players?

As Argentina takes its victory lap after winning the 2022 World Cup, the performance of both athletes proves that individuals deserve to be appreciated for who they are. 
January 3, 2023
7 mins read

Despite the many controversies surrounding the World Cup in Qatar, the games played were some of the best soccer fans have seen in recent history. From the amazing underdog story of Morocco becoming the first African nation in history to reach the semi-finals in a World Cup, to the shocking elimination of powerhouses like Germany and Belgium in the Group Stage, the Qatar World Cup was full of surprises. The tournament even featured a record-breaking five penalty shootouts, including the final between Argentina and France.

Still, this tournament seemed to be about one man, Lionel Messi. Messi is largely considered to be the best soccer player of all time. He nears the end of his career having broken countless records and racking up dozens of trophies and medals. 

But one award had always eluded him, the World Cup trophy. For many soccer fans, winning this award for Argentina would be the only way for Messi to cement himself as the greatest player of all time. Still, the reigning champions France and their young superstar Kylian Mbappé stood in the way of Messi’s goal. 

The game started off extremely one-sided. Messi’s Argentina scored two goals in the first half and were shutting down France defensively, not allowing a single clearcut chance to score. Messi seemed to be running away with it until late into the second half, when the tide started to shift toward the French.

In the 80th minute, France was awarded a penalty kick, which Mbappé converted to make the score 2-1. Hope started to come alive for France, but Argentina was still the heavy favorite to win with only 10 minutes left to play. That is, until Mbappé scored again just one minute later to equalize the game at 2-2. 

France’s second goal sent the game into extra time where the drama would continue. In the 108th minute, Messi scored a goal for Argentina. With only 12 minutes to play. His goal felt like the end of the game and the perfect cap to his legacy as a World Cup Winner.

However, in the 118th minute, with just two minutes to play, France was awarded another penalty off a handball by an Argentinian defender. Once again, Mbappé scored the penalty, equalizing the game and sending the biggest match of the year into a penalty shootout.

Messi and Mbappé both stepped up first for their teams and scored past the opposing goalkeepers. France then proceeded to miss their two following penalty kicks, allowing Argentina to win their first World Cup in 36 years and giving Messi the trophy that had eluded him for so long. 

The 2022 World Cup Final will go down in history as one of the greatest. The dramatic shift of the score made for an anxiety-inducing game. With the eyes of the world watching, we may never see such a tense game again.

Yet, this game seemed to be a ceremonial passing of the torch to a new generation of world soccer. On the one hand, Messi is now 35 and nearing the end of his illustrious career, having won every accolade imaginable. On the other hand, Mbappé is just 24, and entering the prime of his career. Although he lost, the Frenchman scored the first ever hat trick in a World Cup Final and continues to break records at his age in his own right, reminiscent of a young Lionel Messi.

As the most viewed international sporting event, the World Cup draws billions of viewers to support their countries and witness the greatness of some of the best athletes of all time. However, with this mass excitement comes debate. Messi in particular has suffered from heavy scrutiny surrounding his greatness. Throughout his career, he has been compared to his peers and his predecessors. But in a team sport like soccer where one player cannot make a team great, it is unfair to put this level of pressure on one player for an entire tournament.

Reducing Messi’s legacy to one award or even a singular game is unfair to players who may not have as excellent teammates as someone like Messi. Even without Messi, Argentina is one of the best national teams in the world. And without Mbappé, France is still a top team. So, their chances of winning a tournament are much higher not because of their own greatness, but because of the combined excellence of their teammates. Focusing on and comparing individuals without acknowledging their teammates conflates the successes of individual athletes with team victories. This in turn, creates a false meritocracy that makes it difficult for players from worse teams to shine and enter the conversation surrounding soccer’s greatest players.

Moreover, it is difficult to compare players from different generations. Soccer is constantly evolving. For one, the implementation of Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) has created a whole new aspect to the sport that allows crucial mistakes by referees to be corrected during the game. This rule change has already impacted the outcomes of numerous games. But the pace and physicality of soccer have also changed over the past decades, making it difficult to compare player stats intergenerationally.

Instead of constantly debating who is better and counting the number of individual accolades each player has, soccer, and more generally, sports fans should enjoy the players for what they bring to the game. While it is too late to make this change in the career of Messi, the new generation of soccer has arrived through Mbappé. There will likely never be a player like either of these two ever again so we should enjoy them for who they are and not tear them down through excessive comparison.

Alexander Landgraf, The University of Chicago

Writer Profile

Alexander Landgraf

The University of Chicago
Public Policy, Economics

Alexander Landgraf is a second-year at the University of Chicago. In his free time, he enjoys reading, singing and listening to music.

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