Exactly four weeks after Qatar and Ecuador kicked off the 2022 FIFA World Cup at the Al Bayt Stadium, it was time for the big one.
France and Argentina faced off at the Lusail Stadium for football’s ultimate prize, with the hopes and dreams of many players, coaches and millions of fans riding on one fixture.
For the first time since 1998, the defending champions were participating in the World Cup final. France were bidding to be just the third team to defend this title, something only Italy and Brazil had done during the 20th century.
Their opponents were led by one Lionel Messi, who was seeking to deliver the crowning glory of his illustrious career to his fans in Argentina and worldwide.
He had previously announced that this would be the last time he took to the pitch on football’s biggest stage, so this was his chance to bow out from the international scene with the greatest crescendo.
We discussed several options that Lionel Scaloni could use to combat France in our tactical preview of the match, and he ended up going with the 4-3-1-2 formation.
He did throw a curveball in there, though, as Ángel Di María started not in his natural position on the right wing, but on the left.
Defensively, that suited Argentina as Rodrigo De Paul was able to track Theo Hernández on the French left. More importantly, though, the Juventus winger played a key role in his side’s attacks, as he received many crossfield passes in the final third out on the left.
The 34-year-old attacker has been Argentina’s most important big game player in recent years, as he showed by scoring the winner against Brazil in the last Copa América final, helping his nation’s Men’s team win their first major trophy in the 21st century.
He delivered again in this match, winning a penalty in the 21st minute after tricking his way past Ousmane Dembélé on the left. Messi stepped up and converted it without the slightest hint of nerves, becoming the first man to score in every stage of the World Cup in its current format.
About 15 minutes later, an exquisite and slick counter-attack saw Argentina double their lead. Messi flicked the ball around the corner for Alexis Mac Allister, who carried it across the French half and squared it for Di María, who sent his finish past Hugo Lloris. The Argentine faithful in the stadium and across the world took a deep breath because they had a cushion.
As good as La Albiceleste were, France’s performance looked shockingly flat. They ended the first half without as much as a touch in the penalty area. Didier Deschamps made a double substitution in the 41st minute – the first time ever such a thing happened in a World Cup final.
It seemed for all the World that the second half would be a mere formality, and indeed, as the clock showed the 70th minute, France had not attempted a shot and looked all but defeated.
Deschamps’ decision looked terrible — France lacked a target man up top, a dribbler on the right, and perhaps worst of all, Kylian Mbappé looked even quieter after being shifted into a central position.
However, France were given a lifeline about ten minutes later when Nicolás Otamendi pulled first-half substitute Randal Kolo Muani down in the box. It was Mbappé’s turn to step up to the spot, and he too found the back of the net past the fingertips of the goalkeeper.
Precisely 97 seconds after that, Mbappé exchanged passes with Marcus Thuram on the edge of the box before piling a first-time volley to the far corner of the net. In doing so, he overtook Messi as this tournament’s top scorer and severely jeopardised the Argentine great’s dream.
Out of absolutely nowhere, France came right back into the game, so we went to extra time for the fourth time in the last five finals of the World Cup.
The first 12 minutes were rather uneventful, but then Argentina sprung to life. Lautaro Martínez was sent on, and he had the chance to become an instant hero not once but twice.
First, Messi weaved his way into the box and laid it off to him, but Dayot Upamecano flung himself towards the ball and blocked the shot. Soon after, Marcos Acuña chipped a ball in behind for the Inter striker to chase, but Upamecano somehow recovered and turned his shot away from goal again.
Then, in the 109th minute, came another twist. After a quick interchange of passes outside the box, Martínez got on the end of a chipped pass on the right of the box and fired it goalwards, but his shot was saved by Lloris.
However, it only broke for Messi, who bundled it home and put Argentina in front with the least Messi-like goal he has ever scored.
Surely, Argentina began to dream after that. They were but 10 minutes away from ultimate joy, but just as they reached touching distance, a now-familiar foe pulled them away.
Mbappé hit a shot from outside the box, but it struck the arm of Gonzalo Montiel, meaning France had another penalty.
Of course, it was their 23-year-old superstar who took it, and of course, he scored.
Les Blues had a glorious chance to win it when Kolo Muani went through on goal in stoppage time, but Emiliano Martínez spread himself and kept the shot out.
Argentina launched a counter-attack after picking up the loose ball, and it was Lautaro Martínez who got on the end of it with a free header from less than 10 yards out, but he completely messed his contact up.
The World Cup final was to be decided on penalty kicks.
Mbappé and Messi went first for their respective nations. Both of them displayed impossible composure, exchanging punches yet again.
The first to falter was Kingsley Coman. His attempt struck the neck of Emiliano Martínez, who got his reward for guessing right.
Paulo Dybala, sent on for the sole purpose of taking a penalty, sent his shot straight down the middle and scored.
Aurélien Tchouaméni, who was the only player to start all of France’s games, went next, but he pulled his effort wide.
Leandro Paredes and Kolo Muani both scored next, so the stage was set for Montiel to take the ultimate kick of the 2022 World Cup. Lloris went the wrong way, so even though the effort was not headed right for the bottom corner, all that mattered was that it went in.
Argentina won the World Cup – 45 million Argentines won the World Cup.
The importance and the meaning of this achievement simply cannot be overstated. Nor can the manner in which it was won, after arguably the most entertaining World Cup final ever.
For the neutral (of which there admittedly were not many), this game had everything. Even if we ignore all the narratives, the on-pitch action on its own was incredible.
We – all of us who watched this match live through whatever means – should take a moment and be grateful for having the pleasure of enjoying this.
Most of the talk surrounding this game was about Messi and Mbappé, but let us first think about all the other Argentine heroes.
Let us think of Lionel Scaloni, the man who took on what seemed a thankless job in 2018, but has now won it all. His tactical tweaks from match to match gave Argentina the edge against several opponents, not least in this match. He, and many of his coaching staff, experienced the agonising pain of 2002, but this must be the greatest ointment.
On the whole, it would not be inaccurate to say that Argentina played like a team built around Messi, and one of the keys to their success was that all of them played their hearts out for him.
Their contributions cannot be forgotten, especially those of the likes of Emiliano Martínez, Julián Álvarez, Ángel Di María, Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernández, Rodrigo De Paul and Lisandro Martínez among others.
For France, this must be quite painful to take. They were revived after almost tasting despair in normal time, bounced back again in extra time, and yet suffered that deep emptiness after penalties.
Mbappé, the only person to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final and still be kept from the trophy, might feel particularly hard done by. But, this result might not sting as much for him and France as it would have for Argentina thanks to their success in 2018.
Of course, the biggest story of the day is Messi. Some said this game was his final chance to cement his status as a legend of our sport, but that did not seem fair.
Half a century down the line, few will be concerned with his international trophies record while eulogising about him — he has done enough with a football at his feet to do the talking.
That is not to say, however, that this doesn’t mean the world to him. He might well regard this as his greatest sporting achievement, and it certainly has been the cruellest and toughest to get in the past.
With his final attempt, he has done it. He has fulfilled his, and countless Argentine people’s childhood dreams.
He has crowned his magical career with the greatest adornment. Lionel Messi has won the World Cup. Romance isn’t dead.
Stats courtesy Opta via FotMob.
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