Which new stars can replace Messi, Ronaldo after World Cup?

Dec 7, 2022, 2:25 PM | Updated: Dec 8, 2022, 9:51 am
Poster with picture of Argentina's Lionel Messi hangs from a tribune as Portugal's Cristiano Ronald...

Poster with picture of Argentina's Lionel Messi hangs from a tribune as Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the World Cup group H soccer match between Portugal and Ghana, at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

              Poster with picture of Argentina's Lionel Messi hangs from a tribune as Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the World Cup group H soccer match between Portugal and Ghana, at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
              Cody Gakpo of the Netherlands celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup group A soccer match between the Netherlands and Qatar, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor , Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
              Spain's Gavi controls the ball during the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Spain, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
              Spain's Pedri reacts after his team missed a scoring chance during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and Spain, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
              El volante inglés Jude Bellingham previo al partido contra Senegal por los octavos de final del Mundial, el domingo 4 de diciembre de 2022, en Jor, Qatar. (AP Foto/Abbie Parr)
              Portugal's Joao Felix, left, and Switzerland's Edimilson Fernandes battle for the ball during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Portugal and Switzerland, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
              France's Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between France and Poland, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
              Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates winning the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Argentina and Australia at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are not ready to say goodbye to the World Cup just yet.

But the clock is ticking on their careers and Qatar could be the last time we see them on soccer’s biggest stage.

With that in mind, thoughts naturally turn to a new generation and life beyond two men who have dominated the sport for the past 15 years, sharing 12 Ballon d’Or awards for best player in the world and nine Champions League trophies between them.

Theirs are big shoes to fill and, to their legions of fans, each one stands alone as the greatest of all time.

So if separating Messi and Ronaldo has been difficult enough, imagine replacing them.

But life — and sport — moves on and the World Cup is the perfect stage for a new breed of would-be superstars to showcase their talent.

One name stands out above all as the natural heir to the big two: Kylian Mbappe.

“I think we still have not seen the best of Kylian,” said France teammate Olivier Giroud. “He is amazing and he is still young, which is scary because he still can improve his game.”

Not that Mbappe could be described as “new.” He may only be 23 and still waiting for his first Ballon d’Or or Champions League trophy, but Mbappe is already a World Cup winner and the leading scorer at this tournament with five goals.

He has the trophy Messi and Ronaldo crave — and in a week or so, could have two of them.

Mbappe could also have two or three more World Cups left in him, and, with nine goals over two tournaments so far, he is closing in on Miroslav Klose’s all-time record of 16 at the finals.

Qatar feels like a passing of the torch to the Paris Saint-Germain forward, who combines mesmerizing footwork with devastating speed and clinical finishing, which are the qualities that set Messi and Ronaldo apart for so long.

But to match their powers of longevity, perhaps what Mbappe requires most, is a rival to push him to greater heights.

Would Messi or Ronaldo have reached such feats of excellence without the other one driving them on?

The most obvious challenge to Mbappe right now comes from Erling Haaland, the Manchester City goal machine whose country, Norway, didn’t qualify for the World Cup.

He is a different prospect: raw power and goals, without the finesse or individual skills of Mbappe. But if it is about numbers, Haaland has the potential to go toe-to-toe with him in terms of European trophies and scoring.

The World Cup has provided less obvious competition for Mbappe.

England’s Jude Bellingham represents a different profile of player, but his dominant midfield performances have driven his country to the quarterfinals where it will meet defending champion France.

“I love playing with him, he’s young, he’s energetic, he gets around the pitch really well,” said teammate Declan Rice. “For every game that I’ve played with him so far, I’ve just said to him: This is your stage, go out and perform.”

Elsewhere, Netherlands forward Cody Gakpo has three goals and has enhanced his reputation after being linked with a transfer to Manchester United in the summer. But he is playing his club football in the Dutch league with PSV Eindhoven, so still has work to do to be considered among the elite players.

“Things can change, but Cody has everything it takes to become a star,” said Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal. “He has a wonderful personality to become a star player because he is open-minded to anything and everything.”

Portugal’s Joao Felix is yet to fulfil his potential at Atletico Madrid, but has shown flashes of the talent that saw him identified as a star of the future when emerging at Benfica. He has the type of individual, game-changing qualities to see him stand out from the pack, while the chance step out of Ronaldo’s shadow for his country could help his development.

Meanwhile, Felix’ Portugal teammate Goncalo Ramos has suddenly thrust himself into focus after his hat trick against Switzerland in the round of 16 when replacing Ronaldo in the line up.

Vinicius Junior, 22, is emerging as a force for Brazil and a potential successor to Neymar as his country’s next icon.

“He’s made progress since joining Real Madrid and has been showing that at the World Cup,” said Real Madrid clubmate Luka Modric.

Argentina’s Julian Alvarez looks like a natural goal scorer.

Germany’s Jamal Musiala is seen as his country’s big hope, while Spain midfield pair Gavi and Pedri are bringing back memories of the country’s all-conquering partnership of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

But in terms of impact, influence and star appeal, none can compare to Mbappe.

Of course, Messi and Ronaldo are not done yet.

And who would put it past either one of them to add one more winning chapter to their story at this World Cup?


James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson


AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Purdue head coach Matt Painter argues a call during the second of an NCAA college basketball game a...
Associated Press

Purdue stays No. 1 in AP Top 25; NC State in at No. 22

Purdue remained atop The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll despite suffering a loss, while Marquette pushed into the top 10 and North Carolina State made its first poll appearance in four years. The Boilermakers earned 38 of 62 first-place votes in the poll released Monday to remain at No. 1 for a third straight […]
1 day ago
FILE - Coach Eteri Tutberidze, left, talks to Kamila Valieva, center, of the Russian Olympic Commit...
Associated Press

Putin honors skating coach in Valieva Olympic case

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded figure skating coach Eteri Tutberidze one of the country’s highest honors Monday, nearly a year after a doping case involving one of her skaters overshadowed the Winter Olympics. A presidential decree dated Jan. 26 but published on Monday listed Tutberidze among three people awarded the Order of […]
1 day ago
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) is defended by Indiana Pacers forward Aaron Nesmith (23...
Associated Press

What LeBron passing Kareem means to NBA, greatest debate

It’s about to happen. LeBron James is finally on the brink of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s career scoring record, the torch getting passed from one member of the Los Angeles Lakers to another. James is 35 points away from Abdul-Jabbar’s total of 38,387. The record-breaker could come as early as Tuesday when the […]
1 day ago
A Scottsdale Airport staffer waits on a private jet, as the airport gears up for the expected drama...
Associated Press

Super Bowl draws epic air show of private planes to Phoenix

PHOENIX (AP) — Former NFL player Jim Bob Morris is heading to the Super Bowl in Phoenix from Bloomington, Illinois, in a newly refurbished set of wheels. His ride has new paint, new seating and even a new bathroom. Morris, who played for the Green Bay Packers, Houston Oilers and was even with the Kansas […]
1 day ago
Leeds United's head coach Jesse Marsch looks on prior to the English Premier League soccer match be...
Associated Press

Jesse Marsch fired by Leeds after nearly a year in charge

LEEDS, England (AP) — American coach Jesse Marsch was fired by Leeds on Monday after nearly a year in charge of the relegation-threatened Premier League team. Leeds hasn’t won any of its last seven games in the league and has dropped into 17th place in the 20-team division, only out of the relegation zone on […]
1 day ago
FILE - Jaromir Jagr smiles during a press conference at the Kladno Knights hockey club in Kladno, C...
Associated Press

Jaromír Jágr scores his record 1,099th goal at almost 51

PRAGUE (AP) — Jaromír Jágr celebrated his 51st birthday about a week early by scoring his 1,099th goal to overtake Wayne Gretzky at the top of the chart. Jágr, who will turn 51 on Feb. 15, scored for the Kladno Knights on Sunday in 5-4 loss at Trinec in the Czech league. The winger, who […]
1 day ago
Which new stars can replace Messi, Ronaldo after World Cup?