It has been a few years in the making and still appears a few years off arriving, but football fans regularly contemplate what life will be like when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo either fall from their ridiculous standards or retire gracefully. Aged 31 and 33 respectively, they are at the time of the career when most normal footballers exhibit some signs of decline. Yet the reason they have had such longevity at the top of the game is their work ethic combined with ludicrous ability. Perhaps it could be the arrival of two new bona fide superstars that will encourage Messi and Ronaldo to hang up their boots.
If Messi or Ronaldo had been able to carry their national side to a World Cup title, they could have looked around the sport and decided that there were truly no more worlds to conquer. Instead, Ronaldo was his usual prolific self but received little help, while Messi never really looked comfortable in Argentina’s system under Jorge Sampaoli. Two men who have enjoyed far more successful World Cups are Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. The latter is, of course, Messi’s former Barcelona team-mate, while both are players who have been linked with moves to Real Madrid at various times to either supplement or usurp Ronaldo. Mbappe even grew up idolising Ronaldo, which, if nothing else, should serve to make many of us suddenly feel very old.
They are players who have become the focal points of their national teams, both for now and for years to come. Experts at Betfair have tipped Mbappe to make the crucial differences in the knockout stages for his country. Neymar’s inclination to roll around theatrically has thoroughly undermined any genuine claims of injustice against him, but there is no denying that he is blessed with extraordinary ability. Although Philippe Coutinho is genuinely world-class behind him, it is Neymar who is engrossingly influential – even if he couldn’t prevent his side falling to Belgium.
Neymar and Mbappe may currently be at PSG together, but they have the makings of a great rivalry. Neymar looks set to occupy the Ronaldo role in every way, from the histrionics that defined the Portuguese star’s early career to the ruthless and single-minded pursuit of a goal. While Mbappe is more Thierry Henry than Messi in style of play, he has the gentlemanly everyman appeal of the Argentinian, while being blessed with an ability to create chances for this team through blistering pace and selfless running.
His flopping to the floor has been so extreme that it has even encouraged the Wall Street Journal to analyse Neymar’s time on the ground, but the Brazilian star can thrive in the pantomime villain role. Mbappe started this World Cup as the supporting cast to established star Antoine Griezmann, but his devastating deconstruction of Argentina’s defence in the first knockout round was special. It is not like it announced him on the global stage as Mbappe has been prolific for a few years in France, but it confirmed his ability to step up to the big occasion. While Messi and Ronaldo have energy and skill left in their legs, this World Cup has perhaps given us a glimpse into life after the old guard.