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‘Electrifying’: What it’s like watching Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé in person at Qatar 2022

<i>FRANCK FIFE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé will clash in Sunday's World Cup final.
AFP via Getty Images
FRANCK FIFE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé will clash in Sunday's World Cup final.

By Ben Church, CNN

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé have arguably been the two best players at Qatar 2022 and the two will come head-to-head in the World Cup final on Sunday.

Millions are expected to watch the clash behind television screens around the world, most desperate for the opportunity to one day see the two superstars in the flesh.

CNN watched both forwards play live at different points of this year’s World Cup and such a privilege helps you understand just what makes these two men so special.

Lionel Messi

Attending a World Cup in which Lionel Messi is playing makes you appreciate just how big a superstar he is.

Walk around the streets of Doha and you’ll see his name everywhere; from billboards to the back of people’s shirts.

Market stalls sell his jersey, with fans from around the world coming to catch a glimpse of the Argentine magician playing in his last World Cup.

The atmosphere steps up to another level on an Argentina game day.

His name is sung by his adoring fans, reaching deafening levels when he leads his team out for the warmup.

Despite being a quieter personality than some superstars of the game, the 35-year-old knows his role and plays it perfectly.

Waving to the crowd he shows his appreciation for their support before switching his attention to the task in hand.

Even as he enters the twilight of his career, Messi still controls games and doesn’t even need to be on the ball to do so.

Every time an Argentine player is in possession, their task seems simple and well-drilled; find Messi.

Even if the diminutive forward doesn’t receive the pass himself, he’s pointing to where he wants the ball played, like a conductor leading his orchestra — something you don’t always see on the television screen.

Much has been made of his tendency to walk around the pitch during games and, although true, it’s important to note that his mind is always working.

While his body language may appear uninterested at times, he’s a coiled spring, waiting for that pocket of space to appear so he can work his magic.

“The difficult thing about him is when we are attacking, he is chilling somewhere in a corner or something,” said Dutch defender Virgil Van Dijk ahead of his quarterfinal with Argentina. “You have to be so very sharp in terms of defensive organization.”

High praise indeed from arguably the best defender on the planet.

When on the ball, Messi’s first touch is almost always perfect and the crowd sit a little closer to the edge of their seats.

In truth, he doesn’t have the lightning speed he once had but his mind is still as electrifying and the quality of what he does, if anything, has only improved.

Things he does may appear simple to some watching on the screen, but watch him live and you see that everything is done with such elite pace and precision.

His weight of pass dictates what his teammates do next and the areas he puts the ball cause nightmares for opposition defenses.

Even after the match, it’s still all about Messi.

Journalists gather in the mixed zone, waiting to speak to players as they leave the locker rooms and make their way to the team bus.

Even the most experienced, hard-nosed reporters wait a little longer to see Messi up close, desperate to get even a sentence from the seven-time Balon d’Or winner.

So used is he to his superstar role, Messi stops to talk — even after his side’s humiliating 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening World Cup match — and poses for photos from journalists across the world.

It’s one brief moment in time for Messi, but those moments last a lifetime for the people around him.

Kylian Mbappé

Being only 23, Mbappé doesn’t have the same global reach as Messi yet but his ability to excite is just as powerful and his quality is evident even before kickoff.

Those who have taken their seats inside stadiums early at Qatar 2022 have witnessed the forward’s finishing prowess.

Just before the players finish their warmups, strikers often take 10 minutes to practice their shooting against the goalkeeper — and Mbappé always looked more eager than most.

While his teammates saw attempts saved or miss the target,time and time again, his efforts whistled into the top corner of the net with the crowd, many for the first time, witnessing what world-class finishing looks like up close.

Once the match starts, those same fans wait eagerly for the ball to land at Mbappé’s feet, knowing exactly what he’ll do when he gets it.

The Frenchman doesn’t complicate the game and relies heavily on his speed. His pace looks superhuman live, with the attacker breezing past even the quickest opposition with ease.

At every opportunity, Mbappé looks to square up his defender and knock the ball past him. Once he’s free, there is simply no stopping him.

According to FIFA, Mbappé hit a top speed of 35.3 kilometers per hour (about 22 miles per hour) during his team’s round of 16 win against Poland — among the fastest speeds recorded at the tournament.

Defenders often can’t cope with the acceleration and, when combined with his precise shooting, the youngster has won games in a blink of an eye.

It’s a trick that never gets old and there is a rumble of excitement around the stadium whenever Mbappé looks like he’ll get a chance to demonstrate that raw speed.

Like Messi, Mbappé is not too interested in defending and seeing him strut around the pitch before bursting into action is like watching the Argentine icon.

But he seems to always be scanning his surroundings, taking a mental picture of the pitch and identifying when and where he’ll terrorize next.

In a desperate attempt to stop him, teams often task at least two defenders to pay close attention to the Frenchman’s movements — but Mbappé seems to relish the challenge and seems to enjoy making the opposition look foolish.

Managers and coaching staff on the touchline scream instructions to remind their players of exactly where Mbappé is. They know, given even half a yard of space, that Mbappé has the ability to change a game.

French fans in Qatar have been particularly confident throughout the tournament and, when asked why, they often all have the same answer — it’s because they have Mbappé in their team.

All eyes will now be on Sunday to see which superstar can get the last laugh at Qatar 2022.

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