Messi’s Argentina takes on defending champion France in World Cup final showdown

France and its forward Mbappe seek first back-to-back victory since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, with top-ranked Argentine looking for his first trophy and his country’s 3rd

  • Argentina's forward #10 Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's first goal from the penalty spot during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)
    Argentina's forward #10 Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's first goal from the penalty spot during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)
  • France's Theo Hernandez, right, and Argentina's Lionel Messi vie for the ball during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
    France's Theo Hernandez, right, and Argentina's Lionel Messi vie for the ball during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
  • Argentina's Julian Alvarez, left, vies for the ball with France's Dayot Upamecano during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
    Argentina's Julian Alvarez, left, vies for the ball with France's Dayot Upamecano during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
  • Argentinian fans cheer before the the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP/Petr David Josek)
    Argentinian fans cheer before the the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP/Petr David Josek)
  • Argentina's Angel Di Maria scores his side's second goal passing France's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
    Argentina's Angel Di Maria scores his side's second goal passing France's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
  • Argentina's Lionel Messi, second right, celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
    Argentina's Lionel Messi, second right, celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
  • French football fans hold a scarf ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup between Argentina and France as they take part in a traditional Christmas bath in Nice, southeastern France, on December 18, 2022. (Valery HACHE / AFP)
    French football fans hold a scarf ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup between Argentina and France as they take part in a traditional Christmas bath in Nice, southeastern France, on December 18, 2022. (Valery HACHE / AFP)
  • Fans of Argentina gather at the former house of late football star Diego Maradona to watch the live broadcast of the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup final football match between Argentina and France in Buenos Aires, on December 18, 2022. (TOMAS CUESTA / AFP)
    Fans of Argentina gather at the former house of late football star Diego Maradona to watch the live broadcast of the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup final football match between Argentina and France in Buenos Aires, on December 18, 2022. (TOMAS CUESTA / AFP)
  • Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
    Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — Argentina faced defending champions France in the World Cup final on Sunday with Lionel Messi seeking to crown his record-breaking career by winning football’s biggest prize for the first time on his farewell to the tournament.

After 63 matches and 166 goals, the month-long footballing showpiece reached its climax at Doha’s 89,000-capacity Lusail Stadium on Sunday, with the eagerly anticipated final kicking off at 6:00 pm local time. By halftime, Argentina, winners in 1978 and 1986, had jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the defending champs.

Messi, playing in his fifth and final World Cup, is hoping to lead Argentina to a first title since the Diego Maradona-inspired victory in Mexico City in 1986.

In his way stand the prolific Kylian Mbappe and a France team aiming to become the first to win back-to-back World Cups since Pele’s Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

Messi, 35, has collected seven Ballon d’Or awards for the best player in the world, but his last trip to the World Cup final ended in the bitter disappointment of defeat to Germany in 2014.

Argentina’s campaign in Qatar has been boosted by the presence of tens of thousands of supporters who have flocked to each of the team’s matches.

France’s forward #10 Kylian Mbappe reacts during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

At least 40,000 Argentina supporters are estimated to be in Doha.

Two hours before kick-off on Sunday, hundreds of Argentina fans dressed in sky blue and white gathered behind one of the goals at the stadium, waving flags and singing.

Tens of thousands of supporters trying to reach the stadium caused congestion at the main Msheireb station in Doha up to three hours before the final, AFP reporters saw.

Neutrals for Argentina

France coach Didier Deschamps said on Saturday he was aware many neutrals would back Argentina.

“I know Argentina, many people around the world, and maybe some French people, hope Lionel Messi could win the World Cup, but we’re going to do everything to achieve our objective.”

Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said: “People say the favorites are France. But we have the greatest player of all time.”

Deschamps has suffered a difficult few days since France beat Morocco — the first African team ever to reach the last four  — in the semi-final.

His squad have been battling a mystery virus that is believed to have affected five players so far.

France’s forward #12 Randal Kolo Muani (C) challenges Argentina’s forward #10 Lionel Messi during the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

Players, staff and sources close to the French squad have spoken of symptoms including fever, stomach pain and headaches.

However, Dayot Upamecano and Raphael Varane, two of the players who had suffered illness in the days leading up to the match, were named in France’s starting lineup for the final.

Emulating Maradona

While Messi chases sporting immortality, his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappe, 23, is aiming to become the youngest player to win two World Cups since Pele achieved the feat at the age of 21.

France can also count on Antoine Griezmann, who has been highly influential from midfield in the run to the final.

The passionate presence of Argentina fans has been one of the features of this unusual World Cup, played for the first time outside of its traditional slot in the middle of year.

Fans of Argentina gather at the former house of late football star Diego Maradona to watch the live broadcast of the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup final football match between Argentina and France in Buenos Aires, on December 18, 2022. (TOMAS CUESTA / AFP)

“We all believe this will be Messi’s day,” Ricardo Schwarz, a teacher from Cordoba, told AFP at the Souq Waqif in the center of the Qatari capital.

Croatia beat Morocco 2-1 in the third-place playoff on Saturday, but the north Africans’ coach Walid Regragui predicted a team from Africa will win the World Cup in the next “15-20 years.”

The next World Cup in 2026 will be expanded to 48 teams and Africa will have nine guaranteed slots, up from five at present.

“With nine participants, we’re going to learn. In 15, 20 years, I’m sure an African team will win the World Cup because we’ll have learned,” said Regragui.

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