We come to it at last. After exciting semi-finals, dozens of football matches, spectacular goals, great saves, horrendous mistakes, several shock results, and a plethora of tears, we had reached the final of the 2022 World Cup. Well, almost. There was the formality of the third-place playoff, between Croatia and Morocco. Here, players played for pride. There have been several calls to scrap this fixture, but FIFA seem pretty determined that it should remain. Who would (metaphorically) get a bronze medal for their efforts? Not to give the playoff short shrift, but to be honest, I did not particularly care about it. In comparison to the plots and subplots of the final, well, there was no comparison. Croatia won the match, 2-1.
Argentina vs France
Where to begin? Argentina were twice World Cup winners, in 1978 and 1986. France were also twice winners, in 1998 and 2018. Argentina had last reached the final in 2014. In 2018, France eliminated Argentina in a thrilling, 4-3 encounter. Argentine legend Lionel Messi was playing his club football at Paris St. Germain, alongside French superstar Kylian Mbappe. At 35, Messi had already stated that the final would be his last ever World Cup game. At 23, Mbappe was already a World Cup winner. At club level, Messi had won it all, as he had at a personal level. To many, Messi was the greatest of all time, the King of football, and were he to lift the World Cup trophy as Argentina’s captain, it would cement that status in the hearts and minds of many.
Mbappe did not yet have the glittering array of personal and club prizes to his name, though as already mentioned, he was already a World Cup winner. In some respects, his career was (possibly) an inverted version of Messi’s. He was the Crown Prince to Messi’s King, to many football fans, he would inherit the throne. The question was, would he lay down a marker towards doing that?
There were yet other narratives. Both Messi and Mbappe had five goals apiece heading into the final. Right behind them were Julián Álvarez (Argentina) and Olivier Giroud (France), with four goals each. Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi would reach 100 caps if he played. There was an opportunity for Marcus Thuram of France to emulate his father, Lilian Thuram, who lifted the World Cup trophy 24 years ago. Then there was the compression of the hopes and dreams of two nations. The fans of both countries were desperate to see their heroes lift the famous golden trophy aloft. Argentina had been waiting 36 years. France had the chance to do something not done in 60 years, by retaining the trophy.
Still another story waited to become reality. What greater contrast could there be, if Messi shed tears of joy for winning the World Cup, after his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo had left the pitch in tears of dismay, following Portugal’s quarter-final defeat to Morocco?
France had a potential problem in the build-up to the final. Some of their squad had come down with colds, and had to isolate from the rest of the side. One of them, defender Raphael Varane, was named in the starting XI, but would he be fit enough? France were planning on deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Giroud upfront, Mbappe behind him on the left, Dembele to Giroud’s right, and Griezmann right behind. Argentina looked to be lining up with a 4-4-2 formation, pairing Messi upfront with Alvarez, and putting the experienced Angel Di María on the right flank. The actual formations were shifted around a bit, but France boasted a lot of attacking experience, regardless of their precise approach.
Were France nervous? A few wayward passes in the first five minutes gave way to a strike from distance from Mac Allister, albeit it was an easy catch for Lloris. Another opportunity came Argentina’s way, after another good bit of forward play. De Paul’s shot was deflected wide by Varane, the corner eventually led to a little bit of a goalmouth scramble, and Lloris took an elbow to the ribs for his troubles. France were taking a bit of time to get going. With 15 minutes played, Argentina had seen 56% of the ball, and France were yet to have a shot. More sloppiness from France allowed Di Maria to get into a great place in the box, but he sent his shot hopelessly skyward.
France had their first true moment of threat a short moment later. Giroud got on the end of a freekick delivered into the box, but he more or less climbed over an Argentine player to get his header in, and he headed over as it was.
Next game the game’s first true flashpoint. Di Maria skipped past Dembele on the left side of the box, and as he got into the box, there might have been the barest of touches from Dembele on the back of Di Maria’s leg. Di Maria went down, the ref blew his whistle, and pointed to the spot. VAR did not intervene, and who else but Messi stepped up to take the penalty? Messi slotted it home quite easily, sending Lloris the wrong way. Argentina led on 23 minutes. Would this sting the French into life?
Another question was, would the final be settled by a dive? All the back in 1990, German theatrics won a decisive penalty against Argentina, what a twist it would be if this time, Argentina won it off the back of such unsavoury behaviour? Well, on 36 minutes, they doubled their lead, and it was hard to argue against it. Neat passing, from Messi and Mac Allister, split France wide open. Mac Allister was through, and he played a lovely ball into Di Maria, who hit the ball sweetly and precisely, into the back of the net.
France responded with the unusual move of make two subs, before the half-time whistle had blown. Off went Dembele and surprisingly, Giroud. On came Thuram and Kolo Muani. It was a big roll of the dice from manager Deschamps, who had to do something to change the game. France looked lethargic, and Mbappe had been anonymous.
I missed the start of the second-half, as I was walking home. Nothing fundamental happened, and I settled onto the sofa to watch the final half-hour. The outstanding Di Maria was subbed for Acuna, and Argentina continued to look the more assertive, threatening side. France continued to look as though they were sleepwalking. Kolo Muani was at least showing some fight, but France desperately needed a major moment of inspiration. Would it come from the bench? Would it come from anywhere? Mbappe fired a shot over with 20 minutes to go, and yelled in frustration.
Eduardo Camavinga and Kingsley Coman came on for Antoine Griezmann and Theo Hernandez. Camavinga, the youngest player in the French squad, had barely played, but France had to go for it. They certainly didn’t seem to possess much urgency. As we approached 10 minutes of normal time to go, France had yet to have a shot on target, but… Kolo Muani, running through into the box, went down under a challenge, and France had a penalty. Mbappe stepped up…
And scored. Martinez got a hand to it, but there was too much power for him to stop it. Suddenly, was it game on? Was there a late revelation in this World Cup Final?
You bet there was. Moments after scoring the penalty, Mbappe was there again. France had been poor, Mbappe had been absent, yet an energetic move led to a rifled hit at short range, that went beyond Martinez’s outstretched hand. Out of nothing, France were level. Despite not playing well, France had found a way, which is the hallmark of great sides. They were finally playing football. Thuram went down in the box; the ref wasn’t fooled by his acrobatics, and booked him for his efforts.
With the scores locked at 2-2, we would have eight tense minutes of added time. France were suddenly in the ascendancy, but who would have that little extra bit of magic? Romero and Martinez got Argentina out of jail a little bit in added time, after a fine French attack down the left. Every time France got the ball, they broke with scary, dangerous pace.
Messi did provide a warning of his own. He hit a powerful shot straight down Lloris’ throat, and the ‘keeper could only parry the ball over the bar. The subsequent corner came to nought. The match would move into extra-time.
Argentina were the first to threaten, if only half-heartedly. It would be a question of energy now. Energy, and desire. France wanted this. They had fire in their bellies. However, Argentina asked a huge question of the French defence when they cut through it, and won a corner at the end of the first period of extra-time, that proved completely irrelevant. Moments later, Martinez had a great chance to score, but Upamecano poked the ball out, and somehow, France had a goal kick. The first period of extra-time was over, could anyone find a winner in the second spell, or would we have a penalty shootout showdown for the greatest prize in football?
Well, we had a goal, and it went to Argentina, at least, in theory. A bit of a goalmouth scramble erupted, after a lovely move involving, yet again, Messi. Lloris saved a close-range effort, but the ball fell to Lionel Messi, and he slammed the ball in. It was cleared, but the ball had clearly crossed the line, and Messi had put his nation ahead, with little over 10 minutes of time remaining. Mbappe had earlier sent a message to the old master. Messi had replied.
France, once again, had to chase the game. We would surely be in for a frantic final few minutes, of a relentless, dramatic final. We would certainly get it. With four minutes to go, a handball in the box meant France had a lifeline, in the shape of their second penalty of the night! Mbappe had the chance to get only the second hat-trick in a World Cup Final… and he did it. The heir to the throne emulated Sir Geoff Hurst, with a cool and calm penalty, and suddenly, a shootout yet again looked likely.
Argentina continued to come forward. They did not want to settle for the lottery of penalties. They won a very late corner… which came to nothing. France nearly won it themselves, but Kolo Muani couldn’t get enough on Mbappe’s cross. With seconds to go, there were big chances at both ends, including a spectacular save from Martinez. It seemed penalties were inevitable.
So it proved. France, and Mbappe, would step forward first. For the third time that evening, Mbappe would score, which displays tremendous composure. Messi stepped up for Argentina’s first, and he passed it so calmly into the net, it looked as though he was out for a Sunday stroll. Next, Kingsley Coman stepped up, but Martinez was able to get a hand to it, and Paolo Dybala slotted down the middle, to put Argentina 2-1 up.
Aurelien Tchouameni went up for France, and in the wake of Martinez’ mind games, fired wide. Suddenly, Argentina were once again on the brink of victory. Leandro Paredes scored for Argentina, it was 3-1. If Martinez could save the next one, Argentina would be champions, but Randal Kolo Muani was equal to the mind games, so it was over to Gonzalo Montiel.
He stepped up, hit the ball, and it nestled in the back of the net. He took off to the right, pulled off his shirt, and held it to his face, crying at the enormity of what he had just done. Argentina’s players erupted in unbridled joy. Some sank to the floor, others bounced in glorious celebration, and some moved to embrace Lionel Messi, in his final ever World Cup game. Messi himself had a hug for Angel Di Maria, who was also likely retiring from international duties, and former star player Sergio Aguero joined his former teammates on the pitch, in rapturous delight.
Spare a thought for Mbappe. He had scored a hat-trick in a World Cup final, but ended up on the losing side. He won the Golden Boot award for scoring eight goals, but that would be scant consolation.
Enzo Fernandez of Argentina claimed the Young Player award. Imagine that, World Cup winner’s medal, and Young Player award. Emi Martinez, also of Argentina, won the Golden Glove award for best ‘keeper, and after helping to win two penalty shootouts, it was hard to deny him the award. Next was the Golden Ball award, for the best player of the tournament. The winner was, for the second time, Lionel Messi.
France collected their runner-up medals, in what must be one of football’s most sickening feelings, but they had not disgraced themselves. Despite injuries, despite sickness, they had played their part in a thrilling final. However, the night belonged to Argentina. First, they collected their gold medals, and several players took a moment to kiss the trophy, before taking their place among the rest of their victorious squad. Messi received a ceremonial robe, and then joined his teammates, and thrust the trophy aloft, to beautiful, brilliant fireworks.
Unsurprisingly, every player wanted their turn with the World Cup. The fans would join their heroes to celebrate long into the night.
So, that was it for Qatar 2022. A World Cup shrouded in controversy before a ball was kicked. A tournament that provided shock after shock after shock. Argentina themselves lost their opener to Saudi Arabia. Morocco became the first African side to reach the semi-finals. We bade farewell (or likely a farewell) to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and Luka Modric. Germany and Belgium went home in the group stages. England, as ever, flattered to deceive. The Dutch, almost inevitably, went home on penalties. We saw a host nation lose every game for the first time. The World Cup had given us thrills, spills, heartache, raw emotion, some incredible goals, and the world’s best player had finally gotten his hands on the world’s biggest sporting prize. It had been, in a word, exhilarating.