Aafter 12 years, shredded schedules and a swirl of geopolitics; after death and ghosts and suffering; after bracelets, hard power, the Davos in the desert vibe; after 64 matches of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Lusail Stadium offered a purely sporting surprise.
This was the biggest FIFA World Cup final. It was also a third World Cup win for Argentina, who beat France on penalties after a wildly swinging 3-3 draw.
More tellingly, it was also a coronation of sorts, belatedly, for the greatest footballer of his time, probably of any age, lurking 35-year-old mobile brain Lionel Messi, a thousand games into his amazing career.
This was an emotional overload, a match that seemed to have been won at least four times in 120 minutes before finally coming to the final kick of the tournament. Here too there was a twist. This World Cup final would amount to a genius encounter, to the dynastic arm wrestling between Messi and Kylian Mbappé. It did in many ways. Mbappé scored the first hat-trick in a men’s World Cup final since Geoff Hurst in 1966 and still lost.
But the game also came down the good old fashioned way malandro playing skills, epitomized by the rousing antics of Argentina’s goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who cleared the ball, made headway at the French kickers, almost screwed himself into the ground after every failed kick and at one point had to be pushed back by the referee.
As Gonzalo Montiel’s winning kick billowed the net, a beautifully soft moment before the night dissolved into a wave of noise, Messi was buried in the center circle under a knot of blue and white.
Finally, he broke free and walked away waving both hands, all alone in the chaos, save for a single passing cameraman who felt his own money shot. How fitting, after all, for Messi to celebrate a World Cup in the same way he won it, by walking around on his own.
This was a Messi story in so many ways. Messi scored six goals in Qatar 2022 and won the Ballon d’Or as the best player. He played with some of the greatest footballers in the world. He did all this at the age of 35 and half injured. This is not normal. At some point, it will begin to push the boundaries of credibility.
Plus, he’s part of the wider story of this $7 billion sporting extravaganza. When Messi received the World Cup trophy, he was given a robe to wear by the Emir of Qatar, who is also his employer.
You get what you pay for, and Qatar achieved its perfect final here. You have to admire the thoroughness, a blueprint that says that we pay not only for the World Cup, but also for the players most likely to be on the podium at the end: a Messi, a Mbappé, paid ambassadors of Qatar Sports Investments through staggering contracts with Paris Saint-Germain. This is the real thing: end-to-end fully encrypted sportswashing. It’s an incredible feat of will.
But there is also a paradox in Messi winning these divisive and physically brutal World Cups. There have always been two World Cups in Qatar 2022. First, the one that Qatar has built from human waste, the one that has held up a mirror not only to the depravity of big sport, but also to a global labor market that drives migrant workers to lucrative near-captivity; a system Qatar failed to create, which it simply embodied with manic hypercompetence.
Then there’s the other World Cup, the spectacle that brings joy and drama, and that sense of collectivism; and who has elevated Messi’s genius to one of the great sports stories.
He was sublime throughout the game. From the start the colors were perfect. The deep French blue, the Albiceleste of Argentina, the lime green grass, the cold white stadium lights. The first five minutes of any Messi performance have been much talked about in recent weeks. Messi spends those five minutes watching.
He did it here. He scans, makes a panorama, walks, scouts his opponents. And Messi’s walking is not really walking. It’s thinking. Walking is his quick eye movement, his spinning disk as he cracks the code. Messi runs three miles per game. He’s not doing this to get his steps up.
And from the start Argentina was more fluid than ever before, Ángel Di María provided another incision point on the left side. It felt a bit strange. Messi was almost too involved. This should be the World Cup of moments. Don’t waste it. Keep it safe. Wait for it to bloom.
Messi duly scored the opening goal from the spot, made by Di María. The second for Argentina was a beautiful team goal. Messi had a hand at the start and produced a sublime 45-degree pass. Di María finished skillfully, then collapsed a bit, drunk on the glory, the noise, the space, the light.
Didier Deschamps tore up his attack. France was on the line for a while. And so the twists began. Mbappé made it 2-1 after 80 minutes, then 2-2 with a nice clean finish. In the VVIP boxes, Emmanuel Macron went “for one”, the seriously intellectual president of the republic honking, jumping and honking like a startled goose.
Argentina was gone. The team that seemed to be romping to glory like handsome schoolboys looked exhausted, lost and ready. Then Argentina came back and scored again through Messi, before Mbappé leveled it again from the spot. Then came punishments and that last moment of grace.