France aiming to complete its own fairytale amid Messi’s legendary quest

AL KHOR, Qatar — There’s almost an expectation of a fairytale ending at this point, of a preordained outcome that would see Lionel Messi, almost universally considered the greatest player of this or any other generation, ride off into the sunset after winning his final international match — not to mention the most coveted trophy of them all — in Sunday’s World Cup final (10 a.m. ET FOX and the FOX Sports app) against defending champion France.

It would be the ultimate mic drop. A deserved and fitting one. The outcome just about everybody — 66 million French citizens excepted — wants to see. It is no small wonder, then, that Messi’s quest to cement his mortality on the biggest stage possible is the main storyline — seemingly the only storyline — heading into the decisive match.

Yet there’s another storybook ending on the other side that not nearly enough people are talking about. France, after all, is the World Cup holder and the bookies’ favorite to win the game. If Les Blues do triumph and spoil what is supposed to be Messi’s moment in the process, they will secure their own special place in the annals of the planet’s most popular sport.

The World Cup has not had a back-to-back champion in more than 60 years now, not since the legendary Pelé — who was regarded as the GOAT for more than half a century before Messi eventually eclipsed him — led Brazil to consecutive titles in 1958 and 1962. That might as well be ancient history. Pelé is 82 now and contending with health challenges. Few living fútbol lovers remember those days. Even if they did, the 1962 event wasn’t even televised live, or in color. The World Cup was not the ubiquitously marketed quadrennial global juggernaut it is now.

At 23, French star Kylian Mbappé doesn’t have the glittering résumé boasted by Pelé or Messi quite yet, but damned if he isn’t on his way. Mbappé has already won a World Cup. In 2018, he became the first teenager since Pelé to score in a final, and he already has nine career World Cup goals to Messi’s 11, despite playing in 12 fewer games. The pair is tied atop the Golden Boot race at Qatar 2022 with five each, though Messi has logged almost 100 more minutes.

Mbappé is so young, and his numbers so gaudy, it’s not only reasonable to think he will eventually claim the mantle as the best ever if he stays healthy, it’s inevitable. Hoisting the World Cup for the second time two days before his 24th birthday would only speed Mbappé’s ascent.

It’s not just about Mbappé. Manager Didier Deschamps and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris also have a chance to make history Sunday. Deschamps — one of two men to win the World Cup as both a captain and coach — now has the chance to become just the third person, after Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo in 1938 and U.S. women’s national team boss Jill Ellis in 2019, to helm more than one World Cup champ. Lloris, meanwhile, would become the first to captain two separate title winners.

Beyond the possible individual achievements, another victory for Les Bleus would secure France’s status as the undisputed leading soccer nation of the 21st century. Sunday marks the country’s third World Cup final appearance since 2006. France also won the 2000 European Championship two years after lifting the World Cup for the first time, and Deschamps’ side finished runner-up at the 2016 Euros. Add in the UEFA Nations League title he won last year, and this is the coach’s fourth finale in five years. Not that he’s thinking about personal records.

“The team is more important than I am,” he said after the French dispatched Morocco in Wednesday’s semifinal. “We all know that we have this chance now of defending our title in the final.

“That’s a great achievement already,” he added. “But we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that we are even happier on Sunday evening.”

And, with that, write a fairytale ending of their own. 

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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