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The World Cup final between Argentina and France is expected to be a thriller

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

We are two days away from what's expected to be a thrilling final at the World Cup in Qatar. The big storylines for finalists Argentina and France - the French are trying to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back titles. Argentina wants to win one for the legendary forward Lionel Messi, who has won just about everything in soccer except a World Cup title. The stakes could not be bigger. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us from Doha for an early look at this matchup. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Rob.

SCHMITZ: I am so excited about this final. Neither of these teams is an overwhelming favorite. Do we have any recent history between them that might provide clues about who may prevail here?

GOLDMAN: Well, if four years ago is reason enough, France beat Argentina 4-3 in the round of 16 at the last World Cup. Both stars of the current teams played in that match. France's Kylian Mbappe got the better of Lionel Messi. Mbappe scored twice. And it was part of his breakout performance as a 19-year-old at that World Cup.

SCHMITZ: So is that a good enough road map to favor France on Sunday?

GOLDMAN: Not necessarily. It's a very small sample size. We're dealing with a different French team, too...

SCHMITZ: Right.

GOLDMAN: ...Not as potent as it was in 2018. Mbappe is back. And he looks great. But France has been hit hard by recent injuries. And they've had to be more resourceful and rely on their experience and some luck.

SCHMITZ: Right.

GOLDMAN: I mean, the 2-1 win over Morocco in the semifinals could have easily gone the other way if France's last line of defense and its goalkeeper didn't stop the repeated close-to-the-goal attacks by Morocco. But they did. The team did what it had to do. And that's how France has gotten through this tournament. Another challenge, though, France has been trying to limit a virus within the team. They are deep and talented. But they can't lose many more players.

SCHMITZ: So advantage Argentina?

GOLDMAN: Maybe (laughter). I'm being really...

SCHMITZ: You're being a little wishy-washy, Tom.

GOLDMAN: I am being very difficult. Argentina lost its first match of the tournament in an all-time upset by Saudi Arabia. It was a bad start. But Messi said that steeled his team, put them in must-win situations in every match after that. They haven't been consistently dominant. But they come into the final having beaten Croatia 3-0 in the semis. That was an impressive win. That does create some nice momentum. I guess, Rob, I'm hedging a bit because, while both teams are very good, their runs in the final have been bumpy at times.

SCHMITZ: I kind of feel like the world has forgotten soccer is a team game because everything is about Messi versus Mbappe. Is that fair?

GOLDMAN: No, it's - because there are lots of other really good players who will have an impact on what happens Sunday. To name a couple - France's do-everything forward Antoine Griezmann, Argentina's Julian Alvarez, who scored twice against Croatia. But we love our big stars, right?

SCHMITZ: We do.

GOLDMAN: And Messi and Mbappe have earned their star status. Thirty-five-year-old Messi has been tortured for much of his stellar career by not winning a World Cup title for his country. The stage is perfectly set for him to finally do it. He's had a great impact for World Cup here already. And a lot of people are cheering him on, not just in Argentina. Mbappe is only 23. But he would love to have a second title now, which would make him the second youngest to win two since Pele...

SCHMITZ: Wow.

GOLDMAN: ...The legend, did it 60 years ago.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Tom Goldman at the World Cup in Qatar. Thanks, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.