Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé were arguably the two best players at Qatar 2022 and the two will face off in the World Cup final on Sunday.
Millions are expected to watch the clash behind TV screens around the world, with most desperate for the chance to see the two superstars in the flesh one day.
CNN watched both strikers play live at different times during this year’s World Cup and such privilege helps you understand what makes these two men so special.
Attending a World Cup in which Lionel Messi plays makes you appreciate what a superstar he is.
Walk the streets of Doha and you will see his name everywhere; billboards on the back of people’s shirts.
Market stalls sell his shirt, and fans from all over the world come to catch a glimpse of the Argentine magician playing his last World Cup.
The atmosphere goes to another level on a match day against Argentina.
His name is sung by his adoring fans, reaching deafening levels as he leads his team in warm-ups.
Although he is a calmer personality than some of the game’s superstars, the 35-year-old knows his role and plays it perfectly.
Waving to the crowd, he shows his appreciation for their support before focusing on the task at hand.
Even as he enters the twilight of his career, Messi is still in control and doesn’t even need to be on the ball to do so.
Whenever an Argentine player is in possession of the ball, his task seems simple and well-rehearsed; find Messi.
Even if the small forward doesn’t receive the pass himself, he points to where he wants the ball to go, like a conductor conducting his orchestra – something you don’t always see on the television screen.
Much has been made of his tendency to wander onto the pitch during games and while that’s true, it’s important to note that his mind is still working.
While his body language might seem indifferent at times, he’s a coil spring, waiting for that pocket of space to appear so he can work his magic.
“What’s difficult about him is that when we attack he relaxes somewhere in a corner or something,” Dutch defender Virgil Van Dijk said ahead of his quarter-final with Argentina. “You have to be very sharp in terms of defensive organisation.”
High praise indeed from arguably the best defender on the planet.
When he’s on the ball, Messi’s first touch is almost always perfect and the crowd sits a little closer to the edge of his seat.
In truth, he doesn’t have the lightning speed he once had, but his spirit is still as electrifying and the quality of what he does, if anything, has only improved.
The things he does may seem simple to some watching on screen, but watch him live and you’ll see it’s all done with elite pace and precision.
His passing weight dictates what his teammates will do next and the areas he places the ball in cause nightmares for opposing defenses.
Even after the game, everything revolves around Messi.
Reporters gather in the mixed zone, waiting to speak to the players as they leave the locker room and head for the team bus.
Even the most experienced and hard-line journalists are waiting a little longer to see Messi up close, desperate to get even a sentence from the seven-time Balon d’Or winner.
He’s so used to his role as a superstar that Messi stops to talk – even after his side’s humiliating 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their first World Cup match – and poses for photos for reporters of the whole world.
It’s a brief moment for Messi, but those moments last a lifetime for the people around him.
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Only 23, Mbappé still doesn’t have the same global reach as Messi, but his ability to excite is just as powerful and his quality is evident even before kick-off.
Those who took to the stadiums early at Qatar 2022 witnessed the striker’s final prowess.
Just before the players finish their warm-up, forwards often take 10 minutes to practice shooting against the goalkeeper – and Mbappe has always seemed more impatient than most.
While his teammates have seen attempts saved or missed the target, time and time again his efforts have whistled into the top corner of the net with the crowd, many for the first time, witnessing up close what a world-class finish looks like.
Once the game has started, those same fans wait impatiently for the ball to land at Mbappé’s feet, knowing exactly what he will do when he gets it.
The Frenchman does not complicate the game and relies heavily on his speed. His pace seems superhuman live, with the striker outpacing even the fastest opposition with ease.
At each opportunity, Mbappé tries to line up his defender and pass the ball to him. Once he’s free, there’s simply no stopping him.
According to FIFA, Mbappé reached a top speed of 35.3 kilometers per hour (about 22 miles per hour) in his side’s round of 16 win over Poland – among the fastest speeds recorded at the tournament. .
Defenders often can’t cope with the acceleration and combined with his precise shooting, the youngster has won games in the blink of an eye.
It’s a trick that never gets old and there’s a rumble of excitement around the stadium whenever Mbappé seems to get a chance to demonstrate that raw speed.
Like Messi, Mbappé isn’t too interested in defending and watching him strut the pitch before stepping into action is like watching the Argentine icon.
But he always seems to be scanning his surroundings, taking a mental picture of the terrain, and identifying when and where he will terrorize next.
In a desperate attempt to stop him, teams often task at least two defenders to pay close attention to the Frenchman’s movements – but Mbappé seems to relish the challenge and seems to enjoy making the opposition look stupid.
Managers and coaching staff on the touchline shout instructions to remind their players exactly where Mbappé is. They know, even with half a meter of space, that Mbappé has the ability to change a game.
French fans in Qatar have been particularly confident throughout the tournament and, when asked why, they often all have the same answer: it’s because they have Mbappé in their team.
All eyes will now be on Sunday to see which superstar will have the final say at Qatar 2022.