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As sports fans, we love to latch onto narratives. Consider the 2022 World Cup Final. While the crowning match of soccer’s biggest tournament already has some incredible stakes, there’s always room for more drama. Can France become back-to-back champions? Can Argentina make it over the hump and win one for the (metaphorical) Gipper? And, speaking of the players involved, the Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi match-up adds an entirely new element to the match.

Messi is, of course, one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Mbappe hasn’t been around long enough to enter the GOAT conversation just yet, but it’s safe to assume he’ll be a genuine legend before long. Add the fact that the two stars are club teammates at PSG, and the storylines will abound.

Pulling things out a bit further, though, there’s one big-picture plot point that’s worth keying on. No matter what happens on Sunday, the Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi final will be a torch-passing moment that frankly feels too scripted to be true.

The Kylian Mbappe vs. Lionel Messi tale of the tape

Before going any further, let’s take a look at the two men in question. Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi are both incredible soccer players, but they have different skill sets and are at different points in their careers.

Kylian Mbappe:

  • Age: 23 (He’ll turn 24 shortly after the World Cup ends)
  • Nationality: French
  • Height: 5-foot-10
  • National team appearances: 65
  • National team goals: 33
  • National team assists: 19
  • World Cup titles: 1

Lionel Messi:

  • Age: 35
  • Nationality: Argentine
  • Height: 5-foot-6.5
  • National team appearances: 106
  • National team goals: 69
  • National team assists: 23
  • World Cup titles: 0

As those stats (via FB-Ref) indicate, the two stars are at very different places in their respective careers. While Mbappe already has world-class numbers, he’s still incredibly young. Every player ages differently, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect him to be playing at a high level for another decade.

Messi, however, is nearing the end of an incredible career. He’s suggested that Sunday’s World Cup Final will be his last match at the tournament (he’s retired and returned before, but playing on football’s biggest stage at age 39 will be a challenge), and he could have a move to MLS on the horizon. The Argentine forward is still incredibly skilled, but time waits for no man.

Mbappe and Messi play together at the club level and seem to think highly of each other

When the Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi World Cup Final kicks off, the two stars will be sworn enemies for 90 minutes, plus stoppage time. Once that final whistle blows, though, they’ll be back to being on the same team.

In the world of domestic football, Mbappe and Messi play together at PSG. While they’ve yet to reach the top of the Champions League mountain together, there’s been plenty of success and kind words.

As documented by the Daily Mail, Mbappe said that “It’s easy to play with Lionel Messi,” in addition to calling the Argentine “the best player in the world.” The Frenchman did admit that he did bounce between both sides of the Messi-Ronaldo debate as a boy, but he seems to have made his final choice these days.

Although it’s harder to dig up any quotes from Messi speaking about Mbappe, there is one telling anecdote from 2019. A Bleacher Report post from the time recounted an interaction between the PSG man and Ousmane Dembele. Mbappe felt like whenever he scored in the Champions League, Messi would outdo him to remain atop the Golden Boot race. At one point, he became so frustrated that he even asked Dembele, who played with Messi in Barcelona, what was going on.

“[Dembele] responded to me: ‘Of course he is looking at you,'” Mbappe recalled. “I said to myself: ‘Ah, not bad, Messi is surveilling me.’ It is flattering to see that such a player is not overlooking you.”

Since joining PSG, Messi has also gotten a chance to connect with the French phenom at a more personal level. And, despite how the above Youtube video is titled, he’s had nothing but good things to say.

The Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi transition will take another step forward when the 2022 World Cup ends

An edited image showing Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe standing together.
The Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi World Cup Final is soccer history unfolding in real time. | FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Kylian Mbappe Cleats: The French Star’s Boots Show He’s Already Among Soccer’s Elites

So, by this point in time, we know that Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi are both incredible players. It’s also safe to assume that they think rather highly of each other. Sunday’s World Cup Final probably won’t mean too much for their relationship with each other (barring some ribbing in the PSG dressing room), but it will shape how the larger soccer world perceives them.

No matter what happens, there’s going to be a narrative flourish in Qatar. If Messi can finally win a World Cup in his final attempt, he’ll go out in fairy tale style. At that point, it will almost be as if he’s ascended out of the GOAT conversation into legend territory. With that taking place and Cristiano Ronaldo tanking his stock in real-time, that will leave Mbappe as the logical heir to the throne. It will be up to the young Frenchman to continue stating his case before the global soccer fan base.

On the opposite side of the equation, let’s consider what will happen if France lifts the World Cup Trophy for a second consecutive time. That will give Mbappe two titles, which is more than Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar combined, and plenty more room to grow. With the older generation starting to fade away, the French forward will automatically step to the front of the “best active player” conversation.

Again, this is all based on narratives. If you think that Cristiano Ronaldo is and always will be the GOAT, then Sunday’s Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi moment won’t mean much to you. With that being said, though, the World Cup Final has a chance to be a special moment.

It’s rare that 1) we get to see truly historic sports moments and 2) appreciate them as they’re happening and without the benefit of hindsight. When that final whistle blows on Sunday, though, we could be getting exactly that. There will be celebration and heartbreak and plenty of talking points to unpack, but there could also be a very real passing of the torch moment.

That’s what you won’t want to miss.