After a month of unpredictable results, we are left with two World Cup heavyweights going head-to-head in a mouthwatering final as reigning champion France faces two-time champion Argentina Sunday.
In an era of systems and styles of play taking precedence over individuals, this World Cup has been defined by superstar players.
Argentina and France’s successes stem from both teams playing to the strengths of two gifted individuals, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, who have delivered time and time again in Qatar.
Around Messi is a team that has been built to provide its superstar with the moments that he needs to make the difference.
This is not the Argentina of old, constantly trying to give Messi the ball, often at the cost of other brilliant attackers. Instead, a team of functional, hard-working players keep the game ticking by until Messi decides he wants to influence the game.
“Argentina has always produced some world-class players,” French captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris told reporters on the eve of the final.
“Maradona of course was a perfect example of that, and now we have Lionel Messi … [both] who are legends of football.”
Messi’s heroics have helped drag Argentina from the depths of a disastrous opening day defeat to Saudi Arabia to the summit, a journey that has sparked delirium in his native country.
“I’ve seen lots of images of people back home watching the semifinal and celebrating, it makes us very emotional,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni told reporters.
“I think we have the best fans in the world. Our fans have not had reasons to cheer for a long time but I think we are making them happy now.”
The desire to see Messi emulate Maradona in leading his country to glory extends far beyond Argentina, with much of the footballing world desperate to see the 35-year-old finally clinch the trophy that has long-eluded him in what will, by his own admission, be his last World Cup appearance.
Asked whether he gets the feeling he is “alone in the world” given the global support for Messi, France manager Didier Deschamps flashed a wry smile.
“I often get that feeling,” Deschamps told reporters. “But I am fine being alone, that doesn’t bother me.
“I know Argentina and many people around the world, and maybe some French people as well, would hope that Lionel Messi could win the World Cup, but we’re going to do everything to achieve our objective,” he added.
Lloris echoed his manager’s sentiments, insisting his side would “pull out all the stops” to thwart Messi’s fairytale ending.
“As long as we have the support of our fans, and we know that the French people are behind us, then nothing else really matters,” he said.
“Of course we know what Lionel Messi means in the history of football, but this is a match between France [and Argentina] at the end of the day and there are some very good players in the two squads.”