As the footballing world prepares to travel to Qatar in six months, this World Cup should end the era when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the sport’s two most prominent players.
At the time, it felt like the 2018 tournament in Russia marked a turning point as a teenaged Kylian Mbappé became a global superstar by helping France become world champions.
Mbappé consoling Messi after playing as France beat Argentina in the round of 16 was an iconic image of this World Cup.
Fast forward to the present and Mbappé and Messi are teammates at Paris Saint-Germain.
At just 23, the future certainly belongs to Mbappé, who has eclipsed the Argentine at his club this season and is keeping PSG, Real Madrid and football fans around the world in suspense as they await a announcement on where he will play next season.
In the meantime, even though they are now on the decline, Messi and Ronaldo will go to Qatar surely hoping to seize their last chance to win a World Cup, the only glaring omission from each CV.
These are the players who have won 12 of the last 13 Ballon d’Ors between them – Messi won his seventh last year.
Both won a continental title with their national team, but neither quite lit up a World Cup as they would have hoped.
This will be Messi’s fifth World Cup. He was 18 when he scored on his tournament debut in 2006. He inspired Argentina in the 2014 final, which they lost to Germany.
Yet, incredibly, he has never scored in a World Cup knockout game. His six goals have all come in the group stage.
He will turn 35 when Argentina face Saudi Arabia in their opening match on November 22.
“I’m going to have to reassess a lot of things after the World Cup, whether it’s going well for us or not,” Messi admitted in March.
“I hope it goes well, but a lot of things will definitely change.”
‘I will decide’
Ronaldo has also played in four World Cups and last year broke the international goalscoring record held by Iranian Ali Daei, but he also never managed to score a goal in the round of 16.
The Portugal captain will be nearly 38 at the end of this year, but he remains in impressive physical shape and has still scored 24 goals for Manchester United this season.
“I will be the one to decide, no one else,” he insisted in March when asked if this could be his last World Cup.
Improved diets and advances in sports science mean that more and 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, La Liga’s top scorer now perhaps the favorite to succeed Messi as the winner of the Golden Ball.
Benzema has played just one World Cup so far in 2014 before being exiled from the national team for five years due to his involvement in a sex tape blackmail case.
“There’s a World Cup coming up and I have to try to do something big. We’ll see after that if I make history,” Benzema said. The Team recently.
The new wave
Best player of the last World Cup, Luka Modric has never ceased to hypnotize in flashes this season alongside Benzema for Real Madrid.
The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner will, however, be 37 in Qatar.
A repeat of his heroic physical efforts four years ago – when he led Croatia in 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 has only made three World Cup appearances for Poland and has never scored.
Soon to be 34, it’s his last chance for the tournament again, and the same can be said for Uruguayan veterans Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
Even Neymar, still relatively young at 30, has said he may not compete in a World Cup again, as his body and mind are strained.
“I will play as if it were the last because I don’t know if I will still have the mental strength to put up with even more football,” the Brazilian said last year.
Still, Qatar could see one of the game’s emerging young stars make his mark, like Mbappé four years ago.
Norway’s failure to qualify means no Erling Haaland, but Spaniard Pedri, Serbia’s Dusan Vlahovic and Brazil’s Vinicius Junior are among the new generation of superstars. If only they could outshine the old boys.
by Andy Scott, AFP
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