As the football world prepares to head to Qatar in six months, this World Cup will mark the era when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the sport’s two leading players. At the time, it felt like the 2018 tournament in Russia marked a turning point when a teenage Kylian Mbappé became a global superstar by helping France become world champions. Mbappe comforting Messi after he starred when France defeated Argentina in the last 16 was an iconic image of that World Cup.
Fast forward to the present and Mbappe and Messi are teammates at Paris Saint-Germain.
Only 23, the future certainly belongs to Mbappe, who has overshadowed the Argentine at his club this season and PSG, Real Madrid and football fans around the world eagerly await an announcement on where he will play next season.
Meanwhile, even if they’re on the wane now, Messi and Ronaldo will head to Qatar in the hopes of surely seizing their last chance to win a World Cup, the only egregious omission from each’s resume.
These are the players who have won 12 of the last 13 editions of the Ballon d’Or — Messi won his seventh last year.
Both have won a continental title with their national teams, but neither has really lit a World Cup the way they had hoped.
This will be Messi’s fifth World Cup. He was 18 when he scored on his tournament debut in 2006. He inspired Argentina to the 2014 final, which they lost to Germany.
But, unbelievably, he has never scored in a knockout match at the World Cup. All of his six goals came in the group stage.
He will be 35 by the time Argentina play their opening game against Saudi Arabia on November 22.
“I will have to reassess a lot of things after the World Cup, whether we are doing well or not,” Messi admitted in March.
“I hope it goes well, but a lot is definitely going to change.”
‘I will decide’
Ronaldo has also played in four World Cups and broke the international scoring record of Iranian Ali Daei last year, but he has also never scored a goal in the knockout rounds.
The Portugal captain will turn 38 at the end of this year, but he remains in impressive physical form and has still scored 24 goals for Manchester United this season.
“I’ll be the one to decide, nobody else,” he insisted in March when asked if this could be his last World Cup.
Improved diets and advancements in sports science mean more players are now extending their careers at the top well into their thirties.
Karim Benzema, who turns 35 the day after the final at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, is playing the best football of his career for Real Madrid, the top scorer in La Liga who is now arguably the favorite to succeed Messi as the winner of the Balloon arid.
So far, Benzema only played once at the 2014 World Cup before being banned from the national team for five years for his involvement in a sex tape blackmail affair.
“There’s a World Cup coming up and I have to try and do something great. We’ll see if I go down in history after that,” Benzema recently told L’Equipe.
The new wave
Luka Modric, the best player of the last World Cup, has continued to fascinate in flashes alongside Benzema for Real Madrid this season.
However, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner turns 37 from Qatar.
A repeat of his heroic physical exertion four years ago – when he dragged Croatia through extra time in three knockout matches en route to the final – is highly unlikely.
Robert Lewandowski may be the greatest pure goalscorer in European football in recent years, but he only played three World Cup games for Poland and never scored.
He will soon turn 34 and this is again his last chance at the tournament, and the same can be said of Uruguayan veterans Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Even Neymar, at 30 still relatively young, has said he may not appear at a World Cup again as it is so hard on his body and mind.
“I’ll play it like it’s the last because I don’t know if I’ll have the mental strength to endure even more football,” the Brazilian said last year.
Still, Qatar can see that one of the game’s emerging young stars will really make their mark, like Mbappe four years ago.
Norway’s failure to qualify doesn’t mean Erling Haaland, but Spaniard Pedri, Dusan Vlahovic of Serbia and Vinicius Junior of Brazil are among the new generation of superstars. If only they can outdo the old boys.
(This story was not edited by DailyExpertNews staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)
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