Argentina versus France was the blockbuster finale that has millions tantalisingly expectant, as the Qatari-hosted showpiece comes to an end.
April , 2023
The storylines were cinematic. Messi versus Mbappé. The old phenomenon versus the new King. Would Messi seal his legacy with the sweetest of kisses or will Mbappe stamp his authority as the new ruler of the football scene?
Somehow, both realities came to fruition. Messi lifted that elusive title above all titles and Mbappé scored the first world cup final hat-trick since 1966 in arguably what will go down as the greatest game in football history.
For the first time in my football life, I was supporting Lionel Messi and had been throughout the tournament. The reason is that I wish to say "I was there" when history was made. Witnessing a World Cup defended for the first time in 60 years is historic but not quite as seismic as seeing the greatest player of all time cement his already undeniable legacy with the Jules Rimet trophy.
Having started watching football religiously in Kaka's Ballon d'Or winning year (2006/7) at the tender age of 11, it should come as no surprise that my football awakening was dominated by two jaganauts - Messi and Ronaldo. If you lived through the peaks of both their powers, you know that you were either a fan of one or the other, never both. I say "fan" but it was "Stan".
Through Standom, the love of our favourite artists and sports personalities easily spills into the realms of obsessive and irrational support. In the world of a Stan, one fav cannot co-exist with any of their peers. That "you're either with us or against" mentality is at the forefront of that belief.
For the best part of a decade, I stood firmly on the Ronaldo side of the debate until rape allegations (which I chose to believe) were made about the all-time Portuguese top scorer. My reasons for preferring CR7 over Lio were rooted in both vindictiveness and appreciation of athleticism.
With the admission of Messi's superior talents as a footballer, my admiration for Ronaldo's athleticism, work ethic, and mentality grew. As talented a footballer as Ronaldo was/is, he had no right being compared to Messi. Yet despite this difference, he competed and on many occasions defeated his advisory to both team and individual accolades.
Ronaldo was the underdog in the debate and my love for the sobby unexpectant competitor storyline pulled at my heartstrings. The most confident and sometimes arrogant underdog there ever was but that too was appealing to me, especially because he backed it up. But as a result, my Standom-influenced adolescent self regrettably denied me the chance to enjoy the best to ever do it. I remember being a teenager and actively boycotting Barcelona games like a Rihanna Navy Stan boycotting a Beyoncé album. Yes, I caught a lot of Messi magic over the years but I wish I caught even more.
Ronaldo's rape allegations sobered me from my cult-like allegiance but simultaneously my knowledge and love of the game grew beyond partisan lines to the appreciation of the game in its purity. Tactics, technical qualities, grassroots, and the ever-growing football economy rendered a holistic engagement with the sport and its protagonists. I am certainly on the "you can love them both" side of the debate now because I do, from a sporting perspective. I just wish I was in this camp throughout their 16 duels for supremacy.
To be fair to me and anyone else who experienced the rivalry in the way I did too, football is a game of dichotomies. It's two teams against one another, you are bound to pick a side. Neutrality is seldom adaptable especially when one has an affinity with the human beings on the pitch. However, the influence of Standom is undeniable.
As the new King Kylian Mbappé ascends to his throne, I hope budding football fans learn from my generation's mistakes and appreciate his peers as much as they do him. The Halaands, Vinicius's, and Saka's of today are worth equal praise, admiration, and screen time, particularly as they turned towards their peak.
So as I sat down and watched the football Superbowl, I was cheering for the man who brought much pain to me over the years. As he prepares to hang his boots, I can look back at his career with admiration and respect as a rival and genuine provider of joy.
Unlike in the past, I in equal measure enjoyed Mbappé as much as I did Messi. But for once, I was happy the Rosario native hoisted that golden trophy.