When Argentina and France met in the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the two traditional soccer powerhouses produced the most exciting game of the tournament. 1 It had everything, from a breathtaking 80-yard run that resulted in an early penalty, to a 30-yard wonder strike that leveled the score at 1-1 just before halftime, to multiple lead changes, and everything in between. In total, La Albiceleste and Les Bleus produced seven goals on the day, with France eking out a 4-3 win.
For Lionel Messi and Argentina, the sound of the final whistle at Kazan Arena might have felt like a death knell. The GOAT turned 31 a few days before the match kicked off, and a player’s 30s are rarely as productive — or as physically kind to him — as his 20s. Another World Cup had come and gone without Messi lifting the brilliant gold and malachite trophy to the heavens in praise of the Soccer Gods. And he would not get another chance to do so until he was 35.
For France and wunderkind Kylian Mbappé, the final whistle represented something much different — proof that Les Bleus were yet again among the world’s elite national teams2 and evidence that a changing of the guard might be underway. Messi’s two assists kept Argentina in the game, but Mbappé’s two goals propelled France to the quarterfinals — and, eventually, a World Cup title.
Of course, reports of Messi’s demise proved to be extremely premature. In the 141 domestic-league matches he’s played in since that cruel defeat,3 Messi has scored 104 goals and added 67 assists for a downright superhuman goal-involvement rate of 1.2 per match. Over that same timespan, meanwhile, Mbappé has racked up 118 goals and 38 assists in 129 domestic-league matches — matching Messi’s obscene goal involvement rate of 1.2 per match.4
Now, we all get to watch them square off one last time on the global game’s biggest stage. For Argentina, it would be the first World Cup title since Diego Maradona and company brought it home from Mexico’s Estadio Azteca in 1986. For France, it would mean the first repeat World Cup champions since Brazil pulled it off in 1962. For Messi, it would cement his legacy as the greatest player to ever play the sport. For Mbappé, it would make some question whether the former’s claim is legitimate — and plant the seeds for an argument to the contrary.
Before the final, we wanted to track each team’s trajectory from the last World Cup to the present using Elo ratings. Argentina finished 2018 with an Elo rating of 1915, placing it as the 13th-best team in the world — below the likes of Croatia, Switzerland and rival Uruguay. But in every subsequent year, Argentina has climbed higher and higher up the rankings — eventually finding itself ranked No. 1 in the world, as of Dec. 14, 2022.
The story has been much different for France: Since winning the World Cup in 2018, Les Bleus have finished each year with a top 3 Elo rating — despite a relatively lackluster showing at the 2021 European Championship.
Before the tournament began, the FiveThirtyEight World Cup model saw Brazil as the favorite to win the whole thing. (Indeed, the model believed that right until Brazil was knocked out by Croatia on penalty kicks.) But France and Argentina never lagged too far behind, with the third- and fourth-best5 pre-tournament odds, respectively. Be it based on Elo ratings or our model, two of the world’s four best national teams — one each from the world’s two preeminent confederations, CONMEBOL and UEFA — are about to square off for soccer’s biggest prize.
Thanks to Messi’s agelessness — and in spite of Mbappé’s meteoric rise — the changing of the guard remains incomplete. Maybe that all changes this Sunday. Or maybe it never changes at all. There’s only one way to find out.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.