What to know for a World Cup final for the ages

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews Sunday's tantalizing title matchup between Lionel Messi's Argentina and Kylian Mbappe's defending champion France.

Messi goes for his first title vs. Mbappe's defending champion France

Argentina's Lionel Messi and France's Kylian Mbappe are shown in a composite photo during game action.
Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé are the central figures in Sunday's tantalizing World Cup final between Argentina and France. (Gabriel Bouys, Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

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No matter the outcome, Sunday's title match between defending champion France and Lionel Messi's Argentina will be one for the books. Here's what to know about it:

This is Messi's last dance.

You wouldn't know it by watching him in Qatar, where Messi is tied for the tournament lead with five goals and has produced some breathtaking assists, but the 35-year-old master says this will be his final World Cup. A victory on Sunday would give Messi the only major trophy missing from an unmatched resumé that includes four Champions League titles, a record seven Ballon d'Or awards for world player of the year and even a Golden Ball as MVP of the World Cup.

That last honour came in 2014, when Argentina lost 1-0 to Germany in Messi's only other trip to the final. For all his success, Messi's inability to deliver Argentina to the promised land is a sore spot in his country. Many fans there, especially those of a certain age, will always compare Messi unfavourably to the great Diego Maradona — a hero of mythical proportions since his legendary performance in Argentina's 1986 World Cup victory. But Messi helped his cause last year by helping Argentina defeat rival Brazil in the final of the Copa America for his first major international trophy, and a World Cup title could at least make him the Maradona of his time. It might also settle the "greatest player of his generation" debate between Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who just sulked his way to a quarter-final exit in what was likely his final World Cup.

Kylian Mbappé can grab the torch.

As Messi and Ronaldo say goodbye to the World Cup, Mbappé looks determined to prove that he's their successor as the best on the planet. The brilliant 23-year-old French forward is already in position to win his second World Cup after scoring four goals as a teenager in 2018 in Russia.

In Qatar, Mbappé has continued to dazzle with his unstoppable blend of blazing speed and powerful moves. His five goals put him alongside Messi for the Golden Boot lead and just two behind Messi's career total of 11 World Cup goals, which has taken him five tournaments to gather.

It's more than just Messi vs. Mbappé.

The top four scorers in this tournament will all be on the field Sunday. Young Argentina forward Julián Álvarez and not-so-young France forward Olivier Giroud are right behind the leading men with four goals apiece.

Álvarez, a 22-year-old who grew up worshipping Messi, could have passed for his idol during Argentina's 3-0 win over Croatia in the semifinals. He scored his team's second goal on a jaw-dropping solo run from the centre line, then delivered the dagger in the second half by finishing off Messi's brilliant individual effort.

Giroud, 36, passed Thierry Henry to become France's all-time leading international goal scorer when he found the net in a 3-1 win over Poland in the round of 16. He added the late decisive goal in France's tense 2-1 win over rival England in the quarters. Swiss Army knife forward Antoine Griezmann and aggressive left-back Theo Hernández, whose acrobatic early goal sent Les Bleus to a 2-0 semifinal win over Morocco, are also among the French players to watch.

France can become an historically great team.

A win Sunday would make France the first repeat World Cup champion in a half century. Though you can't really call it a surprise that a team this talented returned to the final, it didn't seem to be in the cards before the tournament. Injuries to midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante and reigning world player of the year Karim Benzema robbed the champs of three key players, and their always-volatile team chemistry was a concern too. But France's vaunted depth shone through. It has won five of its six matches in Qatar, with the only stumble a meaningless 1-0 loss to Tunisia in a group-stage finale that France did not take seriously.

To go back to back, France will have to beat a battle-tested Argentina team that has been in do-or-die mode since opening with a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia — one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Messi gave a rousing speech to his dejected team after that defeat, then delivered the first goal in a 2-0 win over Mexico that put them back on course to winning their group. Argentina had another brush with death in the quarter-finals when it blew a late 2-0 lead to the Netherlands, surrendering the tying goal in the 11th minute of stoppage time off a trick free kick. But Messi set the tone in the ensuing penalty shootout by burying his team's first attempt, and Argentina scraped by.

Sunday's final between Argentina and France, two of international soccer's true heavyweights, will be a fitting conclusion to what CBC Sports correspondent Chris Jones calls "the strangest, most controversial, most thrilling men's World Cup in modern memory." Read more about how he thinks Qatar's complicated event ought to be remembered here.

WATCH | John Herdman discusses Canada's World Cup experience on Soccer North:

John Herdman's World Cup journey was a 'life-changing experience'

6 months ago
Duration 4:27
The coach of the Canadian men's soccer team speaks to CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo about looking back on the road to Qatar and ahead to the 2026 World Cup in North America.

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