Messi and Mbappe: Could Paris Saint-Germain be pulled apart by World Cup rivalry?
Upon his return to Paris Saint-Germain's training ground, Leo Messi, was greeted with a guard of honour, his team-mates clapping and smiling as he strode onto the pitch for the first time since arriving from Argentina after winning the World Cup.
PSG, a club associated with its fractures and contentions, was united, with all of its attention focused on one man.
There were a few faces missing from that moment. But one absence was glaring.
Kylian Mbappe, runner-up in the World Cup final, the player who was forced to watch as Messi's Argentina lifted the trophy, was nowhere to be seen.
By the time Messi had returned, PSG's other star winger had jetted off to New York, enjoying a brief holiday – despite having trained for nearly two weeks.
It was, supposedly, a non-event, a coincidence. But it only fueled rumours of a near-expected rift between the two stars, a potential divide that could pull PSG apart.
The Parc des Princes isn't exactly known for its harmonious environment, anyway. PSG are in possession of three of the biggest names in football.
Mbappe is the young phenom with an allegedly inflated ego, Neymar is the game's great unfulfilled talent, while Messi is the humble but deceptively demanding GOAT.
Back together soon 😄 pic.twitter.com/MtR3Ugm3P3— GOAL (@goal) January 4, 2023
Keeping all three happy is not easy. The Parisians must maintain a very delicate balance, with Mbappe, Neymar and Messi acknowledged as star players in their own right, equal contributors to a stellar attacking force.
It's a system of minimal individual sacrifice in the pursuit of mutual success. But history has shown that the slightest nudge can throw the whole thing off center.
That was clear as early as September 2021, just months after Messi signed for PSG. Neymar and Mbappe got into a heated argument on the pitch after an errant pass. An injured Messi didn't comment.
"We exchanged a lot of words like this in the past and will continue to do so, because we want to win," Mbappe told SPORT after the feud.
More recently, Mbappe was reportedly angry that long-time pals Neymar and Messi were developing a closer friendship off the pitch. He subsequently had an on-field argument with the Brazilian about penalty-taking duties.
And the chaos has only continued.
Three months ago, news broke that Mbappe had allegedly requested a transfer away from the Parc de Princes, half a year into a contract that made him the highest-paid player ever, and de-facto sporting director. The club, furious, demanded that the winger publicly backtrack any comments.
And then came an unlikely sort of harmony. The trio, perhaps all with an eye on the World Cup, began to work together. PSG quietly pieced together an undefeated Ligue 1 run and qualified for the Champions League knockout stages.
The three celebrated goals together, were pictured laughing at training and became the deadly attacking trio that many expected. Social media activity – if that is indeed anything to go by – was regular and friendly.
By the World Cup break, Neymar had tallied 21 Ligue 1 goal contributions, Messi 17, and Mbappe 15.
But things have since been thrown into jeopardy. Messi led Argentina to victory over France in the World Cup final, despite Mbappe's scintillating hat-trick.
Kylian Mbappe's brother at the end 😅 pic.twitter.com/sq22894RC5— GOAL (@goal) January 5, 2023
Mbappe, the tournament's top scorer, was forced to take a picture alongside Messi, Emiliano Martinez and Enzo Fernandez, glumly staring into a camera as the three alongside him beamed wearing their World Cup winners' medals.
In the Argentina dressing room afterwards, Martinez poked fun at Mbappe and continued a sort of smear campaign against the Frenchman in the following days, while Messi stood silently in the background.
Mbappe returned to PSG training early, just 72 hours after losing the final, and promptly scored the winning penalty to hand the Parisians a Ligue 1 victory in their first game back after the World Cup break.
But after the result, his winner wasn't mentioned. Instead, he was quizzed about his relationship with Messi, and a potential rift with the Argentine.
Mbappe, unsurprisingly quelled any speculation but did so with an expression of a man trying very much to avoid the line of questioning he was forced to confront.
He played in one more match, an embarrassing loss to Lens in which he was a peripheral presence, before taking a holiday.
Messi, meanwhile, returned refreshed after nearly a month off, and has been pictured smiling and joking with Neymar.
The club has sung his praises, releasing an extended cut of the player walking around the training ground, being offered congratulations by everyone he encounters.
He backed up their good wishes with a scintillating performance in his first game back, scoring a wonderful goal to lead his side to a 2-0 win over Angers on Wednesday night.
The GOAT returns 🐐 pic.twitter.com/mKO7jPkpDZ— GOAL (@goal) January 12, 2023
How, exactly, this all sits with Mbappe will likely never be revealed. And therein lies the problem. A lot of this drama is born from speculation and media attention.
From the outside, friendships are hard to gauge among footballers. Any cameraman can catch a smile, smirk or frown at the right moment.
There is a chance that Mbappe and Messi can get along, united in the common goal of on-pitch success. History has shown that companionship isn't a prerequisite for winning.
But with the biggest stars, on the biggest stage, every expression, every moment, can be spun. And following Messi's World Cup win, the balance that had held everything together so perfectly, and kept individual interests quelled, is more unsteady than ever.
Messi is coming off the most meaningful moment of his career; Mbappe is still dealing with his most painful.
There is, then, an inevitability about all this. Two of PSG's three icons were likely to play each other at the World Cup. That it happened in the final – and in such a dramatic game – is perhaps just unlucky.
Still, as much as Galtier can insist his dressing room is united, even the most untrained of eyes can tell that something is amiss, and it will be fascinating to see how Messi and Mbappe interact on Sunday night, when they set foot on the same pitch for the first time since Lusail as PSG take on Rennes.
The big test, though, will come on February 14, when PSG play an injury crippled Bayern Munich in the Champions League knockout stage.
The Bavarians are far from full strength and face a fight of their own to win the Bundesliga. Theoretically, they have never been easier to beat.
But there's a real fear that PSG could beat themselves first.