Doha- After 63 matches, the World Cup in Qatar comes to a close on Sunday when reigning champions France take on Argentina in a showpiece final at Lusail Stadium with both teams looking to add a third star to their crest.
Croatia edged Morocco 2-1 in Saturday’s third-place playoff, an entertaining affair that served as a curtain-raiser to the main event where France stand in the way of Lionel Messi and his last chance of glory.
In the France dugout, coach Didier Deschamps has already taken his place among the sport’s greats – as a player and a coach – but can go one step further by becoming the first coach to win back-to-back titles in the post-World War II era.
The last time these two teams met was at the 2018 World Cup where France beat Argentina 4-3 in the last 16, an encounter that was arguably the most entertaining match of the tournament in Russia.
The final will also see a clash of generational stars when 35-year-old Messi, playing in his final World Cup match, faces his 23-year-old Paris St Germain team mate Kylian Mbappe.
Both players have scored five goals at the World Cup and could potentially leave Qatar with three trophies as they also vie for the Golden Boot for the top scorer as well as the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player.
Messi, 35, has collected seven Ballon d’Or awards for the best player in the world, but the last time he reached the World Cup final it ended in the bitter disappointment of defeat to Germany in 2014.
It is Messi’s quest that will focus the world’s attention on the 89,000-capacity Lusail Stadium in Doha, the most spectacular of the remarkable venues that the desert state have erected to host the tournament, for the 1500 GMT kickoff.
“I am well aware that Argentina will have a lot of fans behind them,” France coach Didier Deschamps said on the eve of the game.
“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 favourites 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.
Central defenders Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate, and winger Kingsley Coman were forced to miss training on Friday because of the illness.
Before that, midfielder Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano were ruled out of the semi-final.
Players, staff and sources close to the French squad have spoken of a range of symptoms including fever, stomach pain and headaches.
“We are trying to take as many precautions as possible, to adapt as necessary and get on with it,” Deschamps said.
He had cause for encouragement when all 24 members of his squad took to the field at the start of their last team training session before the final, although reporters were ushered away after 15 minutes.
Captain Hugo Lloris preferred to focus on the match, insisting he was not concentrating solely on Messi and noted how France had shaken off the injury-enforced absence from the tournament of key performers Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
“Lots of people didn’t believe in us but here we are back in the final again,” said Lloris.
“We know what Messi represents in the history of our sport but this is a match between France and Argentina. We will do everything to win this last battle.”
Messi has been brilliant in his fifth World Cup and Sunday’s final is likely to be his last chance to match the achievement of Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina to victory in Mexico in 1986.
But 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.
Argentina supporters will dominate in the stadium, with at least 40,000 estimated to be in Doha.
Their passionate presence 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.
“We all believe this will be Messi’s day,” Ricardo Schwarz, a teacher from Cordoba, told AFP at the Souq Waqif in the centre of the Qatari capital.