AL RAYYAN, Qatar — By definition, fairy tales aren’t real.
So, as much as it might seem like the stars are aligning for Lionel Messi to end his unparalleled career cradling the World Cup in his arms, the cold, hard reality is there’s as good a chance that the storybook ending doesn’t happen.
According to the sports books, there will be no favorite when Argentina and France take the field in Sunday’s World Cup final (coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app). That’s not stopping the Argentines from embracing — manufacturing — an underdog role ahead of the match against the defending champions.
“People can say that the favorites are France. We always like to hear that the opponent is the favorite,” goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said Saturday at his team’s final press conference before the decisive contest. He couldn’t help then adding a qualifier.
“But we have the great advantage to have the greatest player of all time.”
Martínez was talking about Messi, of course.
The marquee finale between two nations that have both won the title twice previously has been billed as a battle between the GOAT, who is desperate to win his first World Cup in his last appearance for his country (Messi will retire from international play following the game, in which he will break the tournament record for appearances) and his heir apparent: French star Kylian Mbappé.
It’s an irresistible storyline, to be sure. So is France’s own quest for history; Mbappé is hoping to help Les Bleus become the first nation in 60 years to win consecutive titles.
Still, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni insisted Saturday it’s about more than the two bold-faced names.
“Tomorrow’s game will be more of a collective effort than an individual effort,” he said. “Mbappé is a top player, obviously. France has so many great players, and they work for him, and that makes him an even better player.
“But this match will be between Argentina against France, beyond Messi and Mbappé, beyond these two players,” he added. “There are many players who can decide this match.”
Argentina does appear to have a cosmic advantage, though, however slight. Les Bleus have been ravaged by a virus that has torn though their squad in recent days. Illness prevented two French starters from participating in Wednesday’s semifinal victory over Morocco.
FOX Sports’ Jenny Taft reported Saturday that all 24 remaining French players (forward Karim Benzema and defender Lucas Hernandez left the camp earlier in the competition because of injury) trained Saturday, but it’s obviously not ideal preparation.
“We would’ve preferred not to have to face this difficulty,” coach Didier Deschamps said.
Another factor that isn’t in France’s favor? The Albiceleste’s support on the ground in Doha. Qatar’s capital city has been overrun by fans adorned in baby blue and white for weeks. With Argentina and its superstar attraction now on the verge of glory, those numbers have exploded over the last few days.
The cavernous, 90,000-seat Lusail Iconic Stadium will be packed to the gills Sunday, and almost everyone in attendance will be screaming their lungs out for Argentina, hoping to see Mbappé & Co. lose.
“It’s like we’re playing at home,” Martínez. “That’s a great advantage.”
It’s also a great responsibility. Martínez and Scaloni both spoke about being fans as well as players. It’s hard to describe what soccer means to everyday Argentines in normal times, though the coach did his best to try. With the country mired in an economic crisis, what his team has accomplished so far has been the most welcome diversion.
“They very much needed this joy,” Scaloni said of the fans. “Football is more than a sport for us. The fact that we were able to make them happy is something wonderful and amazing.”
Still, the burden of trying not to let down their backers — and not to mention their revered 35-year-old captain — at the final hurdle is immense. Those emotions must be carefully managed, or they risk getting the better of the Argentine players and swallowing them whole.
“To be honest, the need to win a game can be counterproductive sometimes,” Martínez said. “We need to keep a cool head.”
With every neutral on Earth — “and perhaps some French people as well,” Deschamps said — seemingly rooting for Messi and his squad, Argentina sure doesn’t feel like an underdog. But there’s no doubt La Albiceleste are the overwhelming popular favorite because of their singular headliner.
Win or lose, Messi already has given the world yet another gift before his final act on the biggest stage: a reason to hope and dream.
“This is the best scenario possible, because it’s a World Cup final,” Scaloni said. “We hope he can lift this trophy. It would be something wonderful.”
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