The stars are starting to align for another Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappé showdown on a global soccer stage to follow their epic World Cup final in 2022.
The men’s soccer tournament at the Paris Olympics starts July 24 and Argentina has now joined host France in the 16-nation lineup.
After Argentina earned its Olympic place late Sunday, beating two-time defending champion Brazil, talk turned toward luring Messi to compete for a second gold medal 16 years after his first.
“The door is open for a player like him to join us,” said Argentina coach Javier Mascherano, a close friend of Messi and title-winning teammate at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “Then it depends on him and his commitments.”
Mbappé has often said he wants to represent France at his hometown Olympics where the men’s soccer final on Aug. 9 is at the Parc des Princes stadium of his club Paris Saint-Germain.
Mbappé and Messi were PSG teammates when they went to the World Cup in Qatar and starred in perhaps the greatest final of all that ended with the Argentina icon lifting the trophy.
Messi scored twice, Mbappé got three in a sensational 3-3 draw as France rallied to first force extra time, then a penalty shootout that Argentina won.
Mbappé said in an interview last month he wants to “write my name in the history of the French team as a player who mattered.”
“For every athlete, the Olympics hold a special place,” he told GQ magazine.
It is not so simple for a great player just to say he wants to play at a Olympics tournament played in late-July and early-August.
FIFA-written tournament rules do allow for each Olympic squad to include three over-age players in what is an Under-23 event for the men. There is no age restriction in the women’s event.
The complication is that each player’s club — Inter Miami for Messi, currently PSG for Mbappé though that could change — is not compelled by FIFA rules to let him go to the Olympics.
The Olympic tournament is not included on FIFA’s calendar of men’s international match dates which dictate when clubs must release players to their national teams.
Messi and Mbappé also have major tournament commitments ahead of the Olympics.
Argentina is the defending champion at the 16-nation Copa América hosted by the United States and France is at the 24-nation European Championship in Germany. Both finals are on July 14 — just 10 days before Olympic men’s soccer starts with France playing in Marseille that day.
Playing a continental championship and Olympics back-to-back is a severe physical commitment, especially for players with European clubs.
In 2016, Messi’s then-teammate at Barcelona, Neymar, was wanted to lead host Brazil to a gold medal the soccer-crazy nation craved at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Neymar missed a special edition of the Copa América in 2016 to prepare for captaining Brazil to the Olympic title at the Maracana stadium, scoring in a 1-1 draw in the final against Germany and converting the decisive penalty in the shootout.
Messi also has a special history with Barcelona and the Olympics as the subject of a legal case before the 2008 Summer Games.
Barcelona won a ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport with two other clubs citing the FIFA rules that they did not have to let players including Messi, then age 21, go to the Olympics.
However, Barcelona’s newly appointed coach agreed to the wishes of his emerging superstar to miss some pre-season training and qualifying games for the Champions League to spend three weeks in China.
That coach, Pep Guardiola, was proved right and Messi returned with a gold medal and went on to inspire Barcelona that season to win the Champions League, La Liga and Spanish cup.
Mbappé’s employment situation in July is unclear. His PSG contract expires in June and he has long been expected to join Real Madrid as a free agent.
Madrid’s desire to sign a proven superstar at age 25 perhaps means it would accept Mbappé’s request to be at the Olympics, even if he would not arrive on the training field until after the Spanish season starts in August.
The coach of France’s Olympic team Thierry Henry, a national-team great who was in the 1998 World Cup-winning squad, cannot be sure yet who he can select for a tournament that also includes Spain, Ukraine, the U.S. and Israel.
“If I’m asked, I’d love to go,” Mbappé told GQ, “but if that’s not possible, I’ll understand.”
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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