Messi, Ronaldo World Cup exits shine spotlight on next generation of megastar athletes
Step aside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo… there is a new group of kids on the block ready to seize the limelight and form the next generation of global megastars.
French teenager Kylian Mbappe announced himself in dramatic fashion on Saturday, overshadowing Messi as France beat Argentina 4-3 in the World Cup last 16. That took his goal tally for the tournament to three—two behind England talisman Harry Kane and one behind Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.
Messi and Ronaldo, captain of the Portugal side beaten 2-1 by Uruguay, also on Saturday, had been on a quarter-final collision course but the closest they will now come to each other in Russia is the airport departure lounge. While they have set goal records tumbling both in Europe and Spain year after year, amazingly neither has ever been able to find the net in a World Cup knockout match in a combined 14 games.
For all of Messi’s brilliance at club level with Barcelona, it appears the 2014 final defeat to Germany is the closest he will ever come to winning the World Cup. Real Madrid forward Ronaldo, a European champion with Portugal two years ago, will be 37 by the time the next global showpiece rolls around—meaning it is unlikely he will improve on a run to the semi-finals in 2006.
With the exits of the pair, both five-time world players of the year, confirmed on the same day, the stage is clear for a handful of young, hungry pretenders to seize the spotlight. Leading the charge is the 19-year-old Mbappe, who achieved a feat no player had accomplished in 60 years, becoming the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since a 17-year-old Pele in 1958.
“I’m very happy, and it’s flattering to be compared to a great player like Pele,” said Mbappe, born a few months after France won the 1998 World Cup. “But he’s in another category. Still, it’s great to join the list of players that have achieved such feats.”
The Paris Saint-Germain striker, who as a child had posters of Ronaldo plastered across his bedroom wall, has three goals in three starts in Russia. He finds himself trailing England striker Kane in the race for the Golden Boot, but his terrorizing of the Argentina defense underlined his growing menace. He’s not so much as arriving as arrived.
After four straight seasons with 20 or more goals in the Premier League, Kane is now demonstrating his ability on the biggest stage of all, leading England’s attack and captaining the side. He struck twice in an opening win over Tunisia before bagging a hat-trick in his next outing and is the key figure for a youthful England side.
“It’s going well, there’s still a long way to go, the most important thing is winning games,” said the 24-year-old Tottenham star.
Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez described Kane as an “emblematic player” ahead of their meeting with England in the last 16 on Tuesday. Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku is also enjoying a breakout World Cup campaign, answering his critics in resounding style after a disappointing campaign in Brazil four years ago.
The 25-year-old scored twice in successive matches in Group G, the first player from any nation to do so at the tournament since Diego Maradona in 1986. He is Belgium’s record scorer with 40 goals in 71 appearances and will be central to their hopes as Roberto Martinez attempts to finally get the best out of a golden generation.