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Was Russia 2018 the Greatest of All World Cups?

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The question that now lingers is whether it is for the last time. Neither Messi nor Ronaldo has won this competition, of course, and neither has much of a track record of leaving ambitions unfulfilled. It is difficult, though, to escape the sense that this was their last chance.

Messi may return in 2022, though by that time he will be 35, and even his magic is likely to have faded. Can Argentina, so chaotic here, afford to spend the next four years building around a player entering the twilight of his career? Will Messi find the idea of another arduous qualifying campaign appealing? The head says one thing. The heart may say another.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, will be 37. He clearly does not believe he is finished: in the hours before the first semifinal, he was in Greece, completing his $110 million transfer to Juventus.

It is worth noting that his contract lasts four years, until the summer of 2022, a few months before the Qatar World Cup. It is a staggering commitment to a player of his age, but perhaps even his new employer feels, by that stage, his remarkable powers might have waned a little.

What is for certain, however, is that this is the final World Cup either will approach at, or even near, his peak. It was impossible to escape the sense that this tournament marked the end of one thing, and the beginning of another. Andres Iniesta, reduced to the role of substitute as Spain ground to a halt against Russia, will not be back; Lewandowski left no impression at all as Poland slipped from sight in the group stage. Of that generation, only Modric, steering Croatia to the final, has excelled, and he may yet choose to bow out in glory.

In their stead, a new generation is rising, led by the tournament’s breakout star, if that is not a strange tag to give to someone who is already the second-most expensive player in the world: MbappĂ©.

He has a long way to go if he is to emulate either Messi or Ronaldo, of course; on the evidence of this World Cup, he is unlikely to have a peer and a rival capable of pushing him as hard as the Argentine and the Portuguese have for so many years. Throughout Russia 2018, though, it became increasingly clear that this is MbappĂ©’s time. That of Messi, Ronaldo and Iniesta — in terms of World Cups, at least — has passed.


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