Many years from now, we will look back on the 18th of December 2022 as the day Lionel Messi, the greatest ever, completed football. However, anyone who witnessed it live will know that the journey, even on the final day, was far from straight forward.
Lionel Messi lifted up on the shoulders of his teammates, as they parade around Lusail Stadium with the World Cup after defeating France in the 2022 World Cup Final.
Going into the 2022 World Cup final, the storyline was that Lionel Messi had one last chance to win the elusive World Cup, while Kylian Mbappe had the chance of extending his perfect record at the World’s biggest stage. It was to be a showdown between a South American superpower driven by passion, emotion and skill and the defending champions from Europe who were methodical, clinical, and ruthless.
Argentina started the game on the front foot. Angel Di Maria, after his short absence due to injury, was more motivated than ever. His first half performance was staggering – he ran circles around defenders, won his side a penalty and finished off a devastating counterattack to give his country a 2 – 0 lead. As for the Great Man, he was built for the big stage. He did not let the moment tear him down. He had missed his penalty in the 2016 Copa America final, and he had two penalties saved earlier in this tournament, but none of that would affect him now. He scored his penalty and wheeled off to the corner flag to celebrate in front of the Argentine fans. Argentina’s second goal was pure class. It was the epitome of Argentine football - the perfect blend of passion and skill. Argentina won the ball just outside their own penalty area and just five clever passes later, Angel di Maria finished past an onrushing Hugo Lloris. Alexis MacAllister was an unsung hero for this goal, this game, and the tournament for Argentina. Despite playing for an ‘unfashionable’ Premier League club in Brighton & Hove Albion, the 23-year-old was the brightest spot in the Argentine midfield throughout the tournament.
Argentina’s fans were in full voice ever since the onset of their national anthem prior to kick off, and they had no reason to stop. The La albiceleste continued to keep Lloris busy for much of the second half and even after 75 minutes, France were struggling to string ten passes together. Didier Deschamps made a series of changes to instigate a response from his side. He brought on Randal Kolo Muani in the 41st minute, and Kingsley Coman, and Eduardo Camavinga in the 71st. According to me, the trio were instrumental in changing France’s fortunes late in the second half. In the 79th minute, Kolo Muani went on a powerful run that ended with Otamendi bringing him down in the box and conceding a penalty. Mbappe was trusted with the penalty duties, and he did not falter, bringing the French within one. Just 97 seconds later, Messi dallied on the ball a second too long and Camavinga stole it off him. The resulting play ended in a superb volleyed finish from Mbappe for his and France’s second. In Peter Drury’s words, “Football can be a strange game,” and it certainly was on this big occasion. Argentina worked hard and dominated for 75 long minutes, only for it to be nullified by two minutes of negligence. It was France’s clinical finishing that got them past England and Morocco in the previous rounds and it was happening for them again.
After France’s two goals in two minutes, you felt it was just not to be for Argentina. You felt history would repeat itself and they would fall short once again. The wind was knocked out of the La albiceleste, and their fans were silenced. The eight minutes of added time were frantic as both sides tried to find the winner before extra time. Emi Martinez made a crucial save on Kolo Muani, after the referee played a brilliant advantage. On the other end, Hugo Lloris made an important save to deny Messi a 90 + 7th minute winner.
The first half of extra time was a relatively dull affair until Lautaro Martinez got subbed on for Argentina in the 103rd minute. Lautaro was immediately involved in a promising attack, but his shot was blocked by a spectacular last-ditch tackle from Dayot Upamecano. The rebound bounced out to Gonzalo Montiel, whose brilliant first-time volley, that looked certain to nestle into the top left corner, was bravely headed away by Raphael Varane.
Throughout the remainder of extra time, Lautaro had multiple chances that were just about dealt with by French defenders. It is an extremely harsh statement, but Lautaro’s performance bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain Gonzalo Higuain disaster class on this same stage eight years ago, that deprived Argentina of the World Cup. However, in the 108th minute, Lautaro did help Argentina break the deadlock as he initiated a clever interchange between himself, Enzo Fernandez, and Messi. This led to a shot of his own, which was parried by Lloris straight into the path of Messi, who tapped in Argentina’s third on the night.
One felt it was surely over now, with Marcos Acuna successfully wasting time in the corner, Rabiot and Varane going off injured for France and the Argentine midfielders breaking up every promising French build up.
However, there was another twist in the tale. France were awarded another penalty as Mbappe’s shot was blocked by the arm of Montiel, from inside the box. It was as if France were awarded a route back into the game for all the bad karma accumulated by Argentina over the course of the game and tournament. Players like Enzo Fernandes, Marcos Acuna, Rodrigo De Paul, and Leandro Paredes were constantly kicking ankles, making dirty tackles, pulling shirts, kicking the ball into the stands after the whistle and going to ground for minimal contact. As much as I adored Emi Martinez and respected Messi, I found it difficult to support Argentina because of this disgraceful behavior from many of their teammates.
Anyways, Mbappe stepped up and converted his second spot kick of the night, thereby completing his hat-trick and equalizing for France. Mbappe was clutch. Despite his age, he carried his nation's hopes on his back. Just ask Harry Kane how difficult it is to score two penalties in a game. I cannot imagine what the Argentine fans and players went through today, because they were back at square one yet again.
In the third and final minute of added time, in extra time (120 + 3rd minute), Otamendi failed to cut out a long ball and Kolo Muani found himself in prime position to score the World Cup winner for France. Somehow, Emi Martinez was able to spread himself and thwart the French forward from point-blank range. I simply cannot fathom how significant of a save this was. These are the moments goalkeepers dream of and live for, and Emi Martinez made the save of his career to keep his nation alive. Within a few seconds, Argentina went straight down the other end, but Lautaro Martinez nodded his half chance wide.
After two hours of thrilling football, the game headed to penalties. Mbappe stepped up again for France and despite Emi Martinez (and every viewer) knowing exactly where he was going to put it, he still found the net. Messi simply would not slip up in his biggest moment and he converted again as well. Emi Martinez lived up to his reputation of being an exceptional penalty stopper as he denied Kingsley Coman’s spot kick. Aurelien Tchouameni’s miss for France and a series of perfect penalties from Dybala, Paredes and Montiel for Argentina meant La albiceleste were finally World Cup winners after 36 years long years. Mbappe’s best efforts were not enough for France, but he is on course to becoming the next Great thing in World Football. Emi Martinez’s rise to stardom is unprecedented and inspiring, considering that he was not even a Premier League starter two and a half years ago.
After a rollercoaster of a ride, in this game and in his international career, Messi had achieved football’s greatest prize in his fifth and final attempt. The debate for the ‘Greatest Male Footballer of all Time’ might, just might, be over for the time being. It was a fairytale ending and a god-like farewell from the beautiful game’s biggest stage, for Lionel Messi. Over the past 19 years, he had seen it all, done it all, and now, won it all.