Qatar’s controlling interests in football are not restricted to this World Cup, as the arrival of two major stars on the tournament stage will remind us. After all, Qatar Sports Investments owns Paris Saint-Germain, the club that feature Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé in an all-star forward line.
Beyond the widespread social, political and economic issues that surround this tournament, Messi playing in his fifth (and probably final) World Cup at 35 seems the purest football narrative. Can a player regarded widely as the best ever – certainly of the 21st century – finally capture the trophy that has so painfully eluded him? The closest he has come was in 2014, when Argentina were losing finalists to Germany as Messi had an ineffectual game at the Maracanã. “The only thing I wanted to win was the World Cup,” he said after receiving the Golden Ball award for the best player of the tournament, his face like thunder.
Four years ago, he was let down by an Argentina team incapable of defending and, in losing 4-3 in a memorable last-16 match to Mbappé’s France, it seemed the baton was passed to the best player of the next generation. Mbappé scored two goals on that day in Kazan and would eventually claim the prize Messi so desired at the first time of asking – aged just 19 – as France were crowned champions in Moscow.
Messi begins his quest against Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was highly visible at the tournament’s opening match; it is no secret that the Saudi leadership hopes to host the 2030 World Cup. The Argentina squad is far more durable than four years ago. Their manager since they exited that tournament is Lionel Scaloni, briefly a West Ham player and still only 44. He has built a balanced squad, full of classic, strong defenders such as Manchester United’s Lisandro Martínez and Tottenham’s Cristian Romero.
Kylian Mbappé (centre) trains with his France teammates at Al Sadd Stadium in Doha.
France put faith in Mbappé as injury-hit holders begin their defence
There is a decent supporting cast of attackers, too, with Inter’s Lautaro Martínez likely to lead the line, lifting the burden from Messi and allowing him to select his moments to shine. Argentina have gone 36 matches unbeaten and are South American champions, having broken Messi’s senior international tournament duck by winning last year’s pandemic-affected Copa América behind closed doors in Brazil.
Messi took time to adjust to the added physicality of Ligue 1 but this season has been playing well, and working on his strength looks to have added a further dimension. Mbappé signed a huge contract to stay at PSG last summer, one giving him a say in the club’s footballing direction, but while there are reports of a rift with Neymar, he and Messi have struck up an understanding.
In Qatar, with France kicking off against Australia in Tuesday’s late game, he finds himself in a position his older clubmate would recognise, that of standard bearer carrying a heavy responsibility. Karim Benzema was ruled out of the tournament on Saturday, joining Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté and leaving Mbappé bereft of an all-star cast of helpers.