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We were down to the last four. Representatives from three different confederations ran a gambit: giants of the game, hard-working underdogs, no-hopers up to a few weeks ago. There were only four games left before one of those teams would become the one, the 2022 World Cup winners. At the end of it all would be the greatest World Cup Final in history.
Part Seventeen: Triumph, Despair And A Whole Lot In-Between
142. The Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow: Matchday Twenty
143. Oft Imitated: Matchday Twenty-One
144. In Defence Of A Glorified Friendly: Matchday Twenty-Two
145. The One: Matchday Twenty-Three
Epilogue: 1 To 211
142. The Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow: Matchday Twenty
Argentina – Croatia
Part of Lionel Scaloni’s job when he took over the head coach position of Argentina was to impart a change of mindset. For too long, playing for Argentina seemed to be a curse: a nation hooked on success that hadn’t found any in decades, riven with constant discord between factions in the team and in management, and with an angry football-mad population piling the pressure on with every setback. It was because of this that the team’s current star and captain quit international football for a time in 2016 before being coaxed back, but that choice to come back looked very much like a mistake after the mess of Russia 2018. Scaloni, aside from creating harmony and upping standards, made it his mission to alleviate that pressure, to make his players eager to play for their country again. It was a hard job, one dedicated to separating the players from a fear of defeat fuelled by rancour at home, but he undertook it and undertook it well. It’s summed up by a variously translated phrase that Scaloni has used repeatedly in discussing the Argentina side, most recently after that defeat to Saudi Arabia. There’s one sentence he wants his players to remember when they make mistakes, when they feel that pressure, when they forget that there are more important things in life and they wont be able to succeed on the pitch until they realise it: the sun will come up tomorrow.
It wasn’t just a player on the Argentinian side who would have needed to hear that though, there was at least one super star in a red-and-white chequered short that needed it too. Messi and Luka Modrić are linked in a lot of ways. 18-year-old Messi’s first international goal for the Argentinian senior side, on his sixth appearance, was a decent one, an outside-of-the box strike with a slight curl, scored in a friendly a few months ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Messi, then with much longer, floppier, hair, was already long past the point when his talent had been recognised, and more than one person celebrating on the sideline was doing so in a Messi shirt. On the other side of that game, a 21-year-old Luka Modrić was making his debut in midfield, then a player of little renown internationally, but already marked as a rising star for his nation. His team won the match as it happened, but it was Argentina who went further in the Summer.
Fast forward twelve years, when the two sides met in the group stage of Russia 2018. Messi was the talisman of a lumbering Argentinian team, one crashing from crisis to crisis, and looking like they wanted to be anywhere else. Modrić was the string-puller for Croatia, a nation with a team dynamic so strong it would take them all the way top the final. That night in Novgorod Modrić ran the show, capping a stellar performance in the middle of the park with an outside-the-box effort of his own, as this Croatian side announced themselves to the world in a fine 3-0 victory. There was no sun rising for either team then, just more attention, more pressure, more weight.
Messi and Modrić pretty much seem to be their international teams, always at the heart of discussions whenever they play, and certainly whenever the two sides have met. It was the same last night. All the cameras were on them, even in the last daunting seconds before kick-off, save a brief cut to Dominik Livaković praying in the Croatian goal. Whichever one was able to rise to the occasion the most, and get the most out of his men around him, was going to win the day. Messi led an Argentina that had recovered wonderfully from that opening humiliation against Saudi Arabia, Modrić led a Croatia that seemed as indefatigable as they had been four years ago: who was going to come out on top of this battle of icons and teams?
There were enforced changes for Argentina, and one reversion, with Nicolás Tagliafico and Leandro Paredes coming in for Lisandro Martínez and the suspended Marcos Acuña. Lautaro Martínez got his nation this far with that last penalty against the Dutch, but was left on the bench here. In a straightforward looking 4-4-2 it was Cristian Romero and Nicolás Otamendi at the back who seemed likely to have as much importance as anyone else, the base of a spine that needed to ward off the Croatian attack and get the ball moving quickly to Messi and co. Croatia were unchanged from the side that started against Brazil, Zlatko Dalić exhibiting a total trust and confidence in the team he knows is his best. That was a 4-3-3 to 4-1-2-3 with Marcelo Brozović as the 1 as required.
The opening pattern of the game was not all that surprising. Nahual Molina and Tagliafico were trying to get on the end of floated balls early, unsuccessfully, Argentina trying to assume an expected early control of the ball in inventive ways. There was nothing doing: Croatia easily morphed into a flat back five whenever they lost the ball, and the coordinated wall of the midfield, marshalled always by Modrić, was enough to keep Argentina at bay for the moment. Argentina looked calm and controlled, Croatia were doing their usual thing in midfield when they had the ball, striking it about with ease, with Borna Sosa always eager for the pass on the left. It was taut, but not tense exactly, with much of the attention remaining on you know who: Modrić in working extra hard to win a corner down the right, Messi in battling to keep a loose ball in play just inside the Croatian half. Things were a little niggly at times, with a few early challenges getting referee Daniele Orsato going and Messi guilty of what looked like a pretty plain dive in trying to win a free just outside the Croatian area, but things hadn’t devolved to the level of the Quarter-Final just yet. Julián Álvarez had a shot from distance easily palmed away, Croatia looked dangerous when on the break. By 34 minutes, it still seemed like anyone’s game.
It was fate that Modrić would have a hand in the opener, but it was not as he would have wished. After an argument about a would-be corner that Orsato wouldn’t grant, it was Modrić who was robbed in possession, leading seconds later to Enzo Fernández lifting a brilliant throughball to Álvarez, running in always behind the defence but having timed this run to perfection: lessons learned from the first game then. Álvarez had the skill to take the ball down and dink it past Livaković, and the Croatian keeper did what he had to do to stop the attacker. Having not really attempted to play the ball, it was a classic case of obstruction, no matter what Roy Keane, Ian Wright and Gary Neville said. Messi didn’t take any chances against this keeper, slamming the ball into the top corner.
Croatia only had a few minutes to contemplate once again being behind in a World Cup knock-out game when they were hit again. This time it was Argentina breaking, and it was fate for them that it was the first instance of such a thing working out for them. Messi had involvement in just about getting a pass off under pressure to Álvarez, steaming forward from a position on the left of his own penalty area. He was still steaming forward, this time with the ball, seconds later, with Rodrigo De Paul and Molina on either side keeping the Croatian backs distracted. Álvarez, seemingly intent on pulling a Maradona of his very own, aimed to get past two defenders, but where Diego did it with panache and flair, Álvarez went for more of a crash tackle, essentially bouncing the ball off of the Croatians and then taking it back off the deflection. One easy finish later and Argentina had another iconic goal to celebrate, with one foot in the Final.
What were Croatia capable of now? They had been behind in games like this before, but not this far behind, this soon (bar the 2018 Final of course). Too many players were suddenly not performing, with Josip Juranović, so critical against Brazil, comparatively quiet here, and Ivan Perisić guilty of some defeatist head-dropping when the shots weren’t coming off. Only a brilliant reflex save from Livaković stopped Alexis Mac Allister from killing the game dead before half-time. Modrić wasn’t playing badly – he maintained his good link-up play, he was getting forward when needed and doing work at the back as required – but Messi’s hold-ups, ability to find men and willingness to take multiple opposition players on as needed was shining a lot more brightly. The question was being put to Croatia, and Dalić’ response was a major change up during and just after half-time, with attack-minded options in Nikola Vlašić, Mislav Oršić and Bruno Petković all sent on. Croatia suddenly had a noticeable height about them, as if Dalić was taking inspiration from Louis van Gaal. There was a heroism, a very familiar kind, in that Croatian reaction, they determined to fight as they had before.
They started the second half well enough, with more of the ball and a clear willingness to get it forward faster than before. It was easy to think that Argentina might well have been making the same mistake that they had against the Netherlands, too willing to sit back and invite the opposition on, but Croatia were vulnerable too: somewhat over-stuffed in attack, Argentinian counters were finding space, and Messi could have finished things early when put through on Livaković, only the narrowness of the angle preventing the finish many expected. Lionel Scaloni was not a statue on the sideline, and brought in Lisandro Martínez to set Argentina up with a 3-2 formation at the back, and that did settle things quickly. Croatia did make some chances, like a goalmouth scramble on the hour mark, a Perisić free from distance, and a late Oršić curler, but none of them went particularly close.
By that last one the game was already finished though, and if Álvarez took the plaudits for scoring the killer goal, they were miniscule in comparison to what Messi got for the assist. Up against one of the defenders of the tournament in Joško Gvardiol, he held the ball, shepherded it, teased he would go this way and that, went, went back and then skinned the RB Leipzig man to get down the byline and past him. It was a wonderful display from the greatest player to ever play the game, leaving a man 15 years his junior in the figurative dust. All it needed after was a cutback and for Álvarez to do the easy part. If the game was a battle between Messi and Modrić, then Messi had just landed the knock-out blow.
It was party time then. Scaloni made as many substitutions as he could, bringing on a lot of fringe players, yet bizarrely leaving Messi – seen earlier feeling his hamstring – on the field. The vast majority of the La Albiceleste could exult in the final 20 minutes, many of them singing the “Muchachos” song that has become their unofficial anthem of this World Cup, an upbeat ode to Maradona, Messi, Las Malvinas and the recent resurgence of this side. The horror of the opening game, and that first half against Mexico, seemed like it had happened decades before.
Croatia didn’t disintegrate, but they did throw in the towel. How else can you describe the substitution of Modrić? Dalić perhaps wanted him to get a moment of recognition, but it was indisputably at the same time an acknowledgement that Croatia, this Croatia, had finally hit their limit and given up. There is no shame in that really – how else would you expect a tired team to react in these circumstances – but there was a definite sadness in all of it all the same. Messi could have made it four late-on, but that would have seemed like too much of a pile-on.
Croatia could not go forever. This many World Cup games was the limit, and even for all of the genius of Modrić, that generational talent in the middle of the field, a return to the World Cup Final was not within their power to gain. There remains plenty in this team but a few retirements – Modrić likely, and others as well – will see them reduced. It might take a while for them to get back to this level, but they can be undoubtedly proud in what they have been able to achieve over the last few years, an example of a team coming together to be far more than the sum of their parts that will be examined for generations. It’s hard not to think of Cruyff’s Netherlands in the 1970’s, both in terms of how good they were able to look on the field, and in their twisted destiny to have no reward for it. But still, Croatia will build again, and in that I hope that they might think on Scaloni’s own philosophically-tinged comments after the Saudi game, on defeat and the possibility of more in the future, how this is all just a ball game at the end of the day, and how what they have accomplished is worthy of high praise. The sun will come up tomorrow.
Argentina can luxuriate in the way they have bounced back in this tournament, sending two middle fingers to those who wrote them off after one fluke result, doing so with a mix of calm, composed team-based play and through the never-ending genius of Messi. He wasn’t up directly against Modrić tonight but he won that battle, all ends up, playing his part in all three goals, and all of those special in their own way. There’s seemingly nothing that he cannot do, even at his age, even with piles of defenders closing in around him. The term “unplayable” most certainly applies. If he performs in the Final as he did last night, and if the players around him perform as they did last night, there is no reason why they cannot claim a third World Cup trophy. The 2018 team was Messi and 10 hangers-on, the 2022 side seem much more prepared. As “Muchachos” goes, “Boys, now we’re dreaming again”.
Argentina 3 – 0 Croatia
143. Oft Imitated: Matchday Twenty-One
France – Morocco
Didier Deschamps, no matter what happens in the next few days, will go down in history as one of the great international managers. It isn’t just that he has won a World Cup of course, a lot of managers have done that. It is the process that he has created within French international football that is the key to his legacy. The sincerest form of flattery is imitation so they say, and the kind of style that Deschamps has instituted in his French teams – a careful nurturing of youth, a risk-adverse control on the field, an emphasis on pace going forward, quick decision making and a total ignoring of the various malcontents screaming from the sideline, be they journalists or something else – has created success for France, and a legion of imitators. France had already beaten one of those imitators before last night, with Gareth Southgate’s England created very much in the mold of Deschamps’ France. Last night they faced another.
Wahid Regragui’s Morocco are a wonder. To have done what he has done in just four months is nothing less than one of the great footballing stories of recent times: inheriting a squad that had just helped to oust the previous manager, soothing that discontent, and then creating a dynamic so perfectly poised in defence that up until last night the only team capable of scoring against them in the World Cup has been themselves. More than that, Morocco are a rollicking good time: in their fans, whose noise has perhaps done more to enliven this farcical World Cup hosting situation than any other; in the players connection to their families, especially mothers, who are invited to join in with celebrations; and with the African continent, for which Morocco have become a worthy representative. Accusations of them being a repeat of the dire-looking Greece success in 2004 are wide of the mark: this is a side that defends in-depth yes, but whose ability to break out, harry their opponents and threaten when they get up top is undeniable. And they were one more scalp away from competing for the biggest prize of all, in a team that Morocco have chosen to try and replicate in many ways.
But had they given too much in the journey to get here? Regragui’s defence was creaking with strains and injuries: key defender Nayef Aguerd was down to start but was then pulled just ahead of kick-off for Achraf Dari, and the sight of a battered Romain Saïss in the starting line-up raised a lot of eyebrows. France had their own changes to make, the latest team to suffer from a bout of cold and flu in the squad, with Adrien Rabiot left in isolation with Dayot Upamecano, replaced by Ibrahima Konaté and Youssouf Fofana respectively. It was the usual French 4-2-3-1 all the same, facing the now familiar Moroccan 4-5-1. Much attention was on the likely match-up of PSG stalwarts Kylian Mbappé and Achraf Hakimi down the left flank: would his club teammate be as successful as Kyle Walker in shackling the star of France’s tournament?
Right from the off, Morocco were at it again. Once you slow things down and look at what they are doing it’s incredibly impressive: contracting the space of the pitch that the opposition can play in through quick movement and resets, flooding that narrow space with players whenever that opposition get too close, and patiently waiting for the opportunity to either win the ball back through a quick press, or heading it clear when a fruitless cross comes in. It shows that the romantic vision of Morocco as a team of nobody’s punching way above their weight is not really true: this is a side with players playing at clubs like PSG, Bayern Munich, Sevilla and Chelsea. Only three of the 26-man squad play in Morocco. They are a good team filled with players who didn’t just start playing well a few weeks ago.
And yet they are not infallible, as the opener showed. They were cut open then in a manner that was as shocking for the length of time we have had to wait for it as it was the actual play. It was classic France though, with Raphael Varane starting it off with a cautious probe into the opposition half and then a speculative throughball. Jawad El Yamiq didn’t need to go for it really, but the surrounds may have hyped him up to the point of a rush of blood to the head: he went for it, and missed it. Antoine Griezmann was away then, barrelling into the penalty area in the kind of space that Belgium, Spain and Portugal would have paid any amount of money to get over the last few weeks. Still, the Moroccan defence recovered enough to crowd Mbappé out once he received the ball, stopping the shot, but that too was a weakness: with six men converging around Mbappé, all it needed was for the ball to find a gap and be spun out to Theo Hernández, ghosting in from the left. His volley was impressive for the height his foot was able to reach, and Moroccan hearts all over the world were cracked.
But not broken. The fans in the Al Bayt last night were loud, hours before the game and probably hours after it. Setbacks for them are a normal watching experience at this level and if France thought an early goal would silence them, they were very much disappointed. That spirit seemed to inflame the Moroccans on the field. Conventional wisdom would have said that the game was already up, that a team as defensively minded as Morocco could not be capable of coming from behind, and against France of all opposition. Morocco gave two figs for that mindset. Their attitude after conceding, when you might have expected a panic in the face of French potency, reminded me of a bastardisation of an old Ulysses S. Grant quote: “Stop worrying about what the other guy is going to do to you, and start thinking about what you are going to do to him”.
But thinking it and doing it are two different things. The first practical effort Morocco employed was a switch to 4-1-4-1, so they could have a greater impact on the ball in midfield and get more men forward to support the attack. The results were immediate. Morocco grabbed the game by the throat for at least 15 minutes, pushing forward, not letting France have any time on the ball and they made Deschamps worry. Azzedine Ounahi’s shot brought a fine save from Hugo Lloris in the French goal as a reward for their efforts, before El Yamiq’s spectacular overhead kick later brought the same. Morocco would have 55% of the possession by the end of the first half, their most in the tournament by a large degree, and that showed in how they refused to surrender.
At the same time, we cannot pretend that France were hugely troubled. They were happy enough to trust in the Deschamps method, cautious when the need was there to be cautious, quick on the counter when they got the chance. A jammed French backline handled most of what the Moroccans were throwing at them with Varane and Konaté having fine games in the centre, and the speed of Mbappé on the break, married with Griezmann’s sense of control and vision to find a man, meant they were never not going to be a threat. Late in the first they had re-taken control of the game, and had made chances to kill it completely, with Oliver Giroud hitting the post and then later shooting wide when he should have scored.
Morocco were just starting to slip by then. Saïss was pulled after being scorched by Giroud for one of those chances, and if one is to question Regragui for anything in the aftermath it will be the decision to play a clearly crocked captain. Sofiane Boufal was losing it up the other end, screaming at officials and making late tackles when they didn’t need to be made. If there’s a word that has characterised Morocco up until now it is calm, they have rarely looked, during play anyway, like they are playing with reckless abandon. But the end of the first half changed that, as a series of set-pieces fell their way that they all approached in a frantic manner, like the game was close to ending. Those chances brought El Yamiq’s bicycle kick, a high take from Lloris, a punch out from the same keeper and a brief glimmer of a one-on-one for Selim Amallah, but the uniting factor among all of them was a hit-and-hope feeling from Morocco, of just getting it in there and praying something would happen. It boded poorly for them.
Morocco had to go for it in the second, their defence hanging onto their sinews just about and a game to be rescued. It was a new situation for them to be in, but they were not going out of Qatar 2022 with a whimper, not with those tens of thousands of fans screaming in their ears. Hakim Ziyech had been quiet enough up to then but suddenly burst to life down the right early in the second, making space, running on to return passes and fizzing dangerous balls into the box. Konaté was again the rock at the heart of the French defence, dealing with dangers and making last gasp interventions. It was the only time in the game when it really felt like France seemed truly vulnerable, not reacting well to the start of the second and almost inviting Morocco on. If Morocco were going to score, it was going to be then.
Only, they didn’t. After ten or so minutes when France looked like they were just waiting to concede, pretty much under siege and unable to get the ball out of their half, things settled. For that France have much to thank Griezmann for, his re-assuring presence in the middle of the park or just ahead of the defence helping to calm things down, break up Moroccan offensive efforts and get forward players more into the game. He seemed to be everywhere suddenly: on the flanks, with a forward ball for Mbappé to chase; in the centre, receiving the pass and moving it on quickly; in the back line, heading clear another Ziyech floating cross. Mbappé seemed more in the mood too, now with a bit more service, his speed getting down the left the kind of danger it was impossible to legislate for. Morocco were not holding on exactly, but you could feel the momentum of the contest begin to shift back against them.
A number of things settled the game. One was Moroccan fatigue, evident more and more as we headed to the late stages, passing going astray and the press no longer as effective. Another was the swap of Giroud for Marcus Thuram, the younger man making an immediate impact in taking over Mbappé’s role down the left and freeing up his counterpart to harry the Moroccan central defence. Another was Cesar Ramos, a ref whose leniency probably helped more than hindered Morocco in the first half, but whose repeated refusal to blow for frees Morocco could have used to threaten became a frustration for them as time wore on.
But Morocco had their chances, and none more so Abderrazak Hamdallah. The sub was one of a number sent on to do whatever they could to rescue the game, and he had the best chance to do so, breaking forward at speed on a counter – one of Morocco’s last as it happened – and having the chance to strike outside of the box, then just inside, then closer still. I talk sometimes about my frustration with players not able to “pull the trigger”, and this was the archetypical situation, a consequence, perhaps, of modern training techniques that emphasise the creation of as much space as possible before taking a shot on in order to maximise the chance of success. In Hamdallah’s case this went beyond that, and more to the point of fear: he just wouldn’t take the shot on, not when it was open for him to do so, and not when the gap was closing. As France neutered the danger by suffocating his run, it was just about the first time, and only time, that the Moroccan fans went quiet. They knew they were not likely to get a better shot.
One sub had fluffed his lines, but another was about to deliver them brilliantly. Deschamps can cut a manic figure on the touchline, but he knows his teams, knows what changes to make and knows when to make them. How else can you explain how he has taken this injury ravaged squad this far? Randal Kolo Muani, only playing his fourth game for his country and another one of those players a lot of us would never have heard of before this month, was sent on, to offer more pace in attack against that tiring Moroccon defence. A minute later, his first touch was the easiest of goals, made by Mbappé’s genius as he won the ball back, made the space for others, drawing defenders to him with his jinks and feints. He had no problem pulling the trigger, and the consequence was a deflection that Muani could not help but sidefoot cleanly into the net.
Unlike Croatia, Morocco never gave up. Late chances were made, not least Hamdallah’s awkward volley that was stopped on the line by Jules Koundé. Their fans never stopped believing, or praying. But Muani’s goal was game over. France were equal to whatever else Morocco had to throw at them, their minds already firmly set on Sunday. The Al Bayt was rocking all the way to the end, as in the dying seconds the fans inside seemed to collectively decide that if they were not going to the World Cup Final, they could spend those precious moments showing the world who they were.
What a journey this has been for Morocco, who have made a serious mark for themselves, their region, their culture and their continent. Even here, in defeat, they proved another point, that they are more than just an extended bank of defenders: they can grab a hold of game and press on, just on this occasion they weren’t able to get the ball in the net. Such is football. I would go so far as to say that Morocco have proven the most important team among the 32 in Qatar: they and their fans, with their resoluteness, decisiveness, tears and cheers, have redeemed the tournament to an extent that no other team can claim to have done, in showcasing an underdog story full of grit and pride. In this World Cup of shocks, no one has made more of an impact than this glorious Morocco team.
As for France, well, they remind of an other old saying, more football related this time, that the mark of a truly great team is that they can win even when not playing very well. They are strong all over the field, and showed that last night, but not consistently. At different points they were in serious peril, and for me they go into Sunday’s Final as slight underdogs themselves: one suspects that Argentinian attack will be more ready to take the chances that fall their way than Morocco were. But France won, just like they did against England, despite being iffy at times. They even kept a clean sheet into the bargain, their first in a while. That’s Deschamps’ way, risk-adverse when you have to be, a killer when you have to be, a winner most of the time. His method has been oft imitated, but rarely replicated, at least so far. Now, as the culminating act of a likely swansong for the manager, he and France have a chance to do something that only two teams in history have been able to do, and not for 60 years: retain the World Cup. Immortality awaits.
France 2 – 0 Morocco
144. In Defence Of A Glorified Friendly: Matchday Twenty-Two
Third/Fourth Place Play-Off
Croatia – Morocco
It’s that time of the World Cup cycle again, when the tired old argument about the merits and demerits of the Third/Fourth Place Play-Off takes place. Is there really that much to be gained by hosting it? Do the two teams involved really want to be there? Isn’t it all, to use an even more tired cliché, just a glorified friendly? I think not. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Third/Fourth Place Play-Off, and here I’d like to take the chance to enunciate just why.
For one thing, this tie has often provided great opportunities for certain teams. The World Cup down the years has been able to magic up underdog runs, or the deep runs of host nations, and many is the time when these teams have stumbled at the Semi-Final stage. The Third/Fourth Place Play-Off affords these sides – Sweden and Bulgaria in 1994, Croatia in 1998, South Korea and Turkey in 2002, Germany in 2006, Uruguay in 2010, to name but a few – the opportunity to have their metaphorical victory lap in honour of a job well done or to take the well-earned plaudits from appreciative home fans (or both, in the case of South Korea).
In that regard, this also offers a more relaxed arena with which to shower praises down on individual players, not least those for whom the Third/Fourth Place Play-Off will be the last time that they appear in their nations shirt. I don’t know if the likes of Luka Modrić will hang up his Croatian boots after this game, and if anyone has earned the right to do so it would be him. In the event that he does, I can’t think of much better ways to wave him off into the international level sunset than one last game of football, one where he may have a greater freedom than otherwise to show what he can do.
There also is, more often than not, plenty of entertainment on offer. Some of the best World Cup games of my lifetime have been this tie, like the back-and-forth affairs of 2002 and 2010, with the latter being easily the best game of that tournament. Freed from the shackles of expectations, of nerves, sides that have been playing cautiously in the tournament itself sometimes feel like they can go onto the field of a Third/Fourth Place Play-Off and express themselves better, and the final result is sometimes end-to-end stuff. Some stinkers remain: 2018’s version of this game was a dire affair, marked by two heavyweights who already wanted to be home. But more often than not you will find something worth watching here. At the end of the day it’s more football before we have to begin the long four year wait to be at this point again.
Lastly, there is the simple fact, in my opinion, that finishing third at a World Cup has value. It’s no surprise to me that the greatest detractors of this tie tend to come from underachieving heavyweights, England most of all. There’s an ego evident there, of being satisfied with nothing less than holding the trophy. The attitude that the World Cup has one winner and 31 losers is an unworthy one: this is a competition, and there is an honour and value in fighting hard for placement, and to be counted among the podium holders. A failure to recognise that, to see the value inherit in getting every last bit of competition out of this structure, is a failing on the part of the holder of such an opinion.
Just ask Croatia and Morocco. In different ways they were the perfect choices to be here. Croatia have punched above their weight yet again, defied the odds yet again, and if this was a victory lap for them then it is one that they could have done precious little more to earn after the last four years. For Morocco, this was the full stop on a remarkably journey through this tournament, when they showed that Arab football, African football, Moroccan football, is not some footnote on the elite stage.
It was not a five star classic that the two teams played out, but it was good all the same. Joško Gvardiol got a well-deserved goal that will do something to banish the memory of being Lionel Messi’s plaything in the Semi-Final, his heroic diving header at the end of a well-worked training ground set-piece perfectly placed to get beyond the despairing dive of Bono. Within minutes Morocco were level, showcasing one more time that never-say-die spirit that has seen them beat Belgium, Spain, Portugal and seriously unnerve France in the weeks before now, and when it came it was another smart set-piece, this time with Achraf Dari on the end of the header. The tie needed a winner and Mislav Oršić would provide it, and provide a worldy in the same moment: the delicious curl of his strike, placed in off the post, was all the better for having been magicked up after Croatia appeared to waste a good counter-attacking opportunity in the build-up.
That was all in the opening 45, and if we were hoping that the rest of the game would provide a barnstormer, the second half was not quite as entertaining. Croatia sat back, Morocco came on and there were moments of note aplenty: the little bits of skill that both sides were happy to employ at times; Andrej Kramarić’ tears at being substituted, at 31 this potentially to be his last appearance at a World Cup; the defensive injuries for Morocco piling up, even as their defence became even more steadfast, a recurring trait; the failings of VAR to spot seemingly nailed on penalties; and Morocco’s willingness to fight to the very end to try and get extra time.
Croatia held on though, and if there was a bad side to the game it was in the aftermath, as an unjustifiable anger from Moroccan players towards referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim – and Gianni Infantino in the tunnel, as it emerged later – boiled over into unacceptable scenes. But even that shone a light on this World Cup: as the Croatian players, coaches and families mobbed the field to celebrate their achievement of another 3rd place finish at a World Cup, the contrast to the disappointment and frustration of the Moroccan players showcased how much both sides really wanted to win this game. At full-time there were wild celebrations and tears, as if it was a Final that was actually being played, and that was the perfect conclusion to the day.
Morocco have laid down a marker in 2022. They have been arguably the greatest story of this World Cup Finals, a team few expected to achieve anything other than maybe third place in their group, that vanquished giant after giant, doing so in a manner that exemplified the very best of team play, individual bravery and iron willpower. They did win an AFCON in 1974, but I think it would be a brave man to suggest that 2022 is anything other than their greatest footballing year. They have achieved a breakthrough for Africa also, and in that regard they must now find a way to buckle down and get ready: already likely to qualify, in just over a years time they will probably enter the 2023 AFCON as one of the favourites. It will be justified after their heroics in Qatar have done more than anything else to transform the tournament into an amazing spectacle on the field.
Croatia, well, it’s not accurate to say they are a one man team, but they are the side of Luka Modrić. He had another good game out there yesterday, albeit not the kind of midfield mastery he has demonstrated on other occasions. If this is to be his last World Cup game he leaves a winner, and with the thanks of his nation and a neutral public, who have been privileged enough to watch him at work at this level for so long. Croatia as a team have also excelled, rarely knowing when they are fully beaten, always trying to fight back, but always with that sense of composure and belief in themselves and in each other. If Morocco are the story of this World Cup, then Croatia really are one of the stories of the last thirty years: has any other nation this small ever gotten so far, repeatedly?
Between the two teams another example for why the Third/Fourth Place Play-Off should be retained was created yesterday. This tie has worth: as an opportunity for teams to show themselves off one more time, as a way to say goodbye to the ageing veterans who won’t get another chance, as an chance for entertaining football and as something of worth in and of itself. Congratulations to Croatia, and to Morocco, whose last act in this World Cup is to remind us of all that. Glorified friendlies should be here to stay.
Third/Fourth Place Play-Off
Croatia 2 – 1 Morocco
145. The One: Matchday Twenty-Three
Argentina – France
We started all of this so very long ago. At different times throughout the World Cup Final, held in front of nearly 90’000 people in the glittering Lusail Stadium and with billions watching elsewhere, I was thinking of Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal, the MFF Football Stadium in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia. It was that little-known player in that ramshackle stadium surrounded by apartment blocks and that country of such little footballing notoriety that started us off in June of 2019, where Tsedenbal scored the very first goal of World Cup qualifying, a sweet free-kick into the the net of Brunei. The journey from there, a place where football struggles to survive, to here, the game of all games, is part of the wonder of international football. There has been triumph, despair and a whole lot in-between in those three-and-a-half years, and there was only one more step to take on the journey from 211 to 1.
There were so many narratives to keep track of yesterday, before, during and after the game. It was impossible to pick just one to focus on amid the pile: the multiple instances of club teammates now facing each other for the greatest prize, and the lesser clubs waiting to welcome a World Cup winner; the players who have reached this point after time spent in the lower tiers of club football; the reservists watching on from the sidelines, at once a part, and not a part, of the team’s effort; the inspiration, or spectre, of Diego Maradona that Argentina seemed to will into an almost existing form, gazing over the Lusail; Lionel Scaloni’s journey from caretaker of a job no one wanted to a game away from managerial immortality; Didier Deschamps seeking the final vindication for his style, his selection and his philosophy; Antoine Griezmann’s reinvention; Ousmane Dembéle’s resurrection; Julián Álvarez’ arrival from potential seen long ago; Alexis Mac Allister’s arrival from nowhere; Oliver Giroud’s ability to win games with his height; Lautaro Martínez with another potential supersub appearance; Argentinian resort to dark arts placed against France besting an injury crisis piled on with an illness crisis; a third World Cup win on the line for both teams; memories of 1978, 86, 90, 14; memories of 1998, 06 and 18.
At the heart of it all were two men, cast into a personal battle that didn’t even reflect where they played on the pitch. Lionel Messi has seen it all and done it all on his personal quest to become the greatest of all time, with just this one missing piece denying him universal acclaim as such. Kylian Mbappé has reached that zenith, and will seek to reach it again and again we can all be certain, to prove that he is now the best in the world today, and potentially the successor to the GOAT title. Was it a case of Messi simply deserving a World Cup triumph after his glittering career? Was it a case of Mbappé cementing his already impressive list of achviements by leading France to the first World Cup retention in over half-a-century? Which of them was better? That was the mouth-watering list of questions we wanted to get answers to, as things ratcheted up to a fever pitch on Sunday afternoon.
When the teams were announced there wasn’t much in the way of enormous surprises. The biggest was Angel di Maria in from the start for Argentina after an unimpressive tournament thus far, the Juventus man favoured over Leandro Paredes in the top-left of a 4-3-3. It was a team based around one man in Messi, but replete with talent elsewhere: Emiliano Martínez seeking to cap his magnificent rise from obscurity to hero in goal; a battling defence of Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Tagliafico, Cristian Romero and Nahuel Molina; a midfield designed to scrap and create through Mac Allister, Enzo Fernández and Rodrigo De Paul; and Álvarez to complement the veterans on either side upfront. It was an attacking team, a fighting team, one that seemed designed to get at their opponents.
France went back to the side that started the Quarter-Final against England, Deschamps seemingly satisfied that the well-noted bout of “Doha flu” that ripped through his squad was no longer a factor. Giroud was the target man at the head of the 4-2-3-1, with Griezmann right behind as the midfield engine, Mbappé to his left aiming to scorch down the wing, and Dembéle designed to go up and down on the right. Adrien Rabiot returned to partner Aurélien Tchouaméni in sheltering a defence that has been impressive throughout the tournament: Jules Koundé, Raphael Varane, Dayot Upamecano and Theo Hernández. At the very back, wearing the captains armband and hoping to cap his own career with another World Cup triumph, Hugo Lloris, the rock France hoped would guide the ten men ahead of him. It was a team that on paper looked dependable, experienced, flexible.
We went through the ceremonial aspects, the anthems, the quaint exchange of pennants. Messi and Mbappé embraced before it all started, a reminder, as if you needed one, that the two will be togging out in the same kit again soon enough. The Argentinian fan contingent dwarfed that of the French inside the stadium, but the sense of nerves, of tension, of fear, was palpable from everyone regardless. It was a relief when the whistle went and we could finally go about answering some of those questions, squaring off some off those narratives. Now, in many ways like it always is, it really did come down to one final inquiry: which of these two teams was willing to fight for it more, reach for it more, wanted it more?
Within seconds of the game starting, Tchouaméni failed to deal properly with a long ball from Griezmann, putting it out for an Argentinian throw. If one was to look for early signs of how the game was going to progress, they wouldn’t find much better in terms of French lethargy and nervousness. It was Argentina’s game in the first half, and they showed that in every successful bit of passing trickery, every surging run towards the French penalty area, every moment of magic as we will get to. But they were aided in large part by an unexpectedly tired looking French outfit, that was poor on and off the ball. Thoughts immediately turned to that mini-epidemic of flu, and the idea began to grow that not every French sufferer of it was at full fitness.
The midfield battle was skewed in Argentina’s favour almost immediately, with De Paul stamping his authority with a shove on Rabiot within minutes, Messi having free rein to receive the ball and find a man, and di Maria taking his selection as a motivation to imitate Mbappé. Within three minutes di Maria had helped craft the first serious opportunity, getting the ball to De Paul and then Messi, whose ambitious looped pass to Álvarez got a shot into the arms of Lloris, but was offside anyway. Still, it showcased immediate signs of how Argentina were planning to operate: with speed, inventiveness and a willingness to go for it.
Five minutes in a cheeky Álvarez backheel helped to set Mac Allister away, his shot going straight into Lloris’ arms: if Messi had been on it the result might have been different. A few minutes later Messi, di Maria and Mac Allister combined to get the ball to De Paul on the edge of the D, and his deflected effort might well have been heading into the bottom left. The resulting corner saw Romero barge into Lloris’ ribs, bringing a stoppage that France were surely grateful for. Ten minutes played, and they had barely been on the ball, let alone out of their own half, with Mac Allister all over Griezmann in the middle and the Messi/di Maria combination rolling back the years to produce some scintillating football. It took nearly 12 minutes for Mbappé to even get a touch and when he did it boded poorly, a one-two attempt with Rabiot that ended with the ball safely in Martínez’ hands. We wouldn’t be seeing much of Mbappé for a long time after. Messi tried to make space for a shot and was only just pressured away from pulling the trigger. Di Maria caught a brilliant cut back awkwardly on the shin, skying a great opportunity. France were being pegged back and overrun, unable to deal with Mac Allister’s fearlessness in the middle and the movement of everyone ahead of him.
France then managed to enjoy a few minutes down the other end on account of a clumsy De Paul tackle on Hernández. Giroud was clumsy in turn with the delivery, battering the head of di Maria illegally and sending the ball well over anyway: it was to be his only notable contribution to the game. Only a few seconds later Argentina were cutting France to pieces again, this time with di Maria, essentially unplayable in the early stages, making a fool of Dembélé down the left. Dembélé couldn’t cope with di Maria at all and when the Argentinian winger got past him and into the box, you didn’t need to be footballing genius to see what was coming. It was only slight contact, but enough.
Up stepped Messi. He’s scored them a few times this tournament and he had to step up here, of course. The narrative was calling, but that sneaking suspicion of an alternative storyline, of a hero-turned villain who couldn’t convert when he had to, just as against Poland, was lingering around too. Messi looked nervous as he made ready, and Lloris looked as towering as he did when he was putting Harry Kane off in the Quarter-Finals. Was Messi mentally ready for this kind of all-encompassing moment? Was he about to choke? Not a bit of it. It was a confident, almost arrogant, penalty given the circumstances, Messi using his characteristic vision and intelligence to see Lloris move to his right just a fraction too early, so Messi could then slip the ball, without too much power and without too much precision, into the other corner. He wheeled away, the burdens of the day already lifting. Argentina were ahead.
If you thought that moment might be the motivation France needed to get into the game, you, Deschamps and a watching Emmanuel Macron were disappointed. Argentina were now firmly in control, heading the few speculative French efforts forward away with confidence, passing the ball at will in midfield and making France work hard just to keep things as they were in their own third. Giroud had to become a makeshift centre-back to defend set-pieces and only the last-ditch interventions of Upamecano stopped first Messi and then Álvarez from sending more shots whizzing towards Lloris’ goal. France had yet to even have a legitimate effort on target themselves.
And then it came. Talk about the best goal ever scored in a World Cup Final, and you’ll often circle back to Carlos Alberto’s game-capping fourth for Brazil against Italy in 1970, a team move of such perfection and poise that his rip-roaring finish was just the icing on the cake. Well, Argentina saw it, raised it and beat it in the 36th minute of this game. It started with Mac Allister getting possession in his own half, looking up and seeing Messi. The captain had defenders closing in, but in two wonderful touches took the ball on his foot and then flicked it delicately behind him with the side of his boot, to an onrushing Álvarez down the right. Mac Allister had continued his own surging run forward, but not so quick that it wasn’t timed to utter perfection, and was on hand to receive the threaded throughball. France were all panic and reaction, and for a moment it seemed as if Mac Allister might have a go himself, though the position and angle did not favour him. But no. He had the coolness and the vision to see di Maria steaming forward from the left, unmarked, screaming for the ball. The pass could not have been better, curving inward. Di Maria couldn’t have hit better, just enough that it bounced off the turf and over a diving Lloris. It was a team goal of outstanding brilliance. It was the greatest goal in World Cup Final history.
Di Maria was already crying, France were in tatters. Deschamps had to do something, as whatever he had intended with his selection simply wasn’t working out. To that end he made his first big throw of the dice with a pair of substitutions five minutes before we even got to injury time, with the woeful Dembélé and anonymous Giroud hooked in favour of Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani, two players presumably earmarked to be brought on later but now flung into the fray to start an exercise in damage control and rescue. Dembélé looked accepting, but Giroud was furious. One sensed his kicking of a water bottle was more anger at his lack of impact than anything else though.
The immediate impact of the substitutions was to calm it all down to a degree. Argentina, perhaps wary of what the changes might mean and content to engage in some feeling out, took their foot off the gas. France had the ball to play around with properly for the first time, but did nothing with it: still, just stopping the momentum of their opponents was enough at that moment. Even in those last few minutes of the first half the added speed and strength of Thuram was a marked improvement for France going down the left, with Mbappé now switching to a more central position. But still, no attempts on goal. Half time came. We all took a breath.
Interval thoughts of Argentina being pegged back from two up in the 1986 Final, and being pegged back just last week by the Netherlands, were all the rage, as we looked for reasons that the French could make a game of it. But this seemed more like 1998 than ’86, only with the hapless French now cast in the role of defending champions Brazil, aimless and toothless, just waiting for the knockout blow. Deschamps had enough faith to make no further changes at half-time, Scaloni the same.
For most of the second half only one manager looked like having that faith rewarded, and it was not the French one. Within moments of the re-start Messi was moving forward against a ragged French defence, one that looked like it had spent the previous 15 minutes on a treadmill, and grateful that Lloris grabbed a cross from a hunting Álvarez before it got to a waiting Mac Allister. It immediately seemed that the pattern of the first half was going to be repeated. De Paul smashed a first time shot straight at Lloris’. A French corner came to nothing, claimed with confidence by Martínez. You were almost waiting for the killer Argentinian goal, the strike that would make the most dangerous lead in football a beyond comfortable one.
At the same time, and I suppose with the benefit of hindsight, you could see the confidence of Argentina becoming overconfidence. You can hardly blame them, coming up against such a limited French team and being so dominant for 50 minutes, 60, 70. Maybe that’s why Martínez’ rush from his goal to clear away a speculative throughball got shanked in an awkward direction, luckily not falling to a French player. Maybe that’s why De Paul was too slow moving through midfield and was the victim of a dire challenge from Rabiot that left him on the turf. Maybe that’s why Scaloni felt the time was right to pull di Maria, easily the man of the match up to that point, before the job was done, even with di Maria running and running like a man ten years younger. Maybe that’s why, not unlike the Quarter-Final, Argentina were deliberately contracting bit-by-bit, too soon. The sight of Tagliafico crunching, legally, into an oncoming Koundé would have only upped the confidence level ahead of that sub, but the signs that France were not beaten yet were there too.
France did look beaten in the moment though. Hernández passed an easy ball out of play, Varane did the same later. Álvarez had a shot smothered by Lloris, Messi suffered just enough pressure from Rabiot to put his own effort wide a short time after. Messi didn’t seem to mind, with TV replays joyously showcasing his flicks and tricks. When Mac Allister got put through just past the hour mark and was denied a goal by Upamecano’s barely legal pressure from behind, you felt like they could start engraving Argentina’s name on the trophy. France weren’t creating anything, Argentina looked primed to kill it dead.
But right around the 65 minute mark, the signs that France had more in the tank than might be apparent began to change into demonstrable evidence. Griezmann flashed a ball across the six yard box, there just wasn’t anyone attacking it. Otamendi, under pressure from a lurking Thuram, shanked a routine clearance out for a corner. Kolo Muani shouldered the resulting corner wide for France’s first official effort on goal. Mbappé cut in from the left and fizzed a shot high and wide. They were half-chances at best but it was something, Les Bleus encouraged by that Argentinian contraction. Deschamps made his next big gamble, with Griezmann and Hernández making way for Kingsley Coman and Eduardo Camavinga. Griezmann had cause to be dreadfully disappointed by his Final, but that was in the past: now a new generation of players, or at least a different generation, were on the field with instructions to throw themselves at it. This is a France team that has dealt with pre-tournament injuries, with that illness, that has had to make do and then excel with a raft of second and third stringers, with players that in the normal state of affairs wouldn’t get anywhere near a game of this magnitude. But they were what France had, and they were not going out of this tournament quietly. And even as Argentina spent the ten minutes between 70 and 80 passing it around with a fun-filled glee as their opponents chased it, the World Cup of shocks was lining up another.
Call it the energy expenditure of either team suddenly tipping back in favour of France, they benefitting from fresher subs and younger players up against Argentinians who had put heart and soul into the first 80 minutes: players like De Paul looked especially done, kicked all over the field by that time. Call it that growing overconfidence, an undeniable sense that Argentina had it done and that Messi was going to get his moment, they were all going to get their moment. Call it the changes that Deschamps had made, pro-active not re-active, that were leaving Argentina more and more stretched. Call it sheer, dumb luck, as if such a thing really exists in this sport.
Whatever it was, France, the game, this World Cup, were all about to explode back into life in two of the craziest minutes in football history. When Otamendi was clumsily unable to deal with a bouncing ball the only way he could stop Kolo Muani from scoring was to foul him, again in a minimal manner, but like Dembélé earlier enough to award the spot kick. Never in this tournament was a penalty taken faster, and Mbappé, so quiet up to then, had enough to smash it home despite Martínez getting a hand on it. “Game on” said commentators all over the world, and barely 100 seconds later it was level. Messi, of all people Messi, was caught in possession by Coman, who got it to Mbappé. His one-two with Thuram, whose energy and commitment was now doing for France what di Maria had done for Argentina, got Mbappé free in the area to send a scintillating first time volley towards goal. Yet again, torturously, Martínez had enough to get a hand on it, but not enough to stop it. The world’s jaws were on the floor. The most one-sided Final since 1998 was back on level terms, and we were all just witnesses to the glory of Mbappé.
And there was still 15 or so minutes with injury time to play. The body language could not have been starker. The Argentina players looked like they were sleepwalking, perhaps wondering if this was all some fever dream, the memory of their 80 minutes of domination vanishing into thin air. France were full of verve, full of flair and they wanted this comeback complete inside regulation. Mbappé had gone from immaterial to undeniable, jinking this way and that down the left, terrorizing the Argentinian defence, flashing in a cross that Kolo Muani only just failed to get connection on with the goal gaping. Thuram went to ground off a Fernández tackle in the box, and hands were over mouths before a yellow was flashed for simulation. Argentina were clinging on, Messi had vanished, di Maria had a thousand yard stare on the sideline. It was surreal the way the minutes passed, like we had all just experienced a flashforward in time to a completely different game.
Mbappé sent another scorcher skyward, deflected. Martínez palmed away a Rabiot shot from the corner, then scrambled to collapse on the ball with Kolo Muani lurking,. Were Argentina going to last to extra time? Giroud was booked on the sideline for haranguing the ref. Kolo Muani drove back at the Argentinian defence, they at sixes and sevens to try and stop this guy nobody had heard of a month ago. Then suddenly at the other end Messi appeared, found space, and had a vicious looking shot, one with plenty of anger and frustration behind it no doubt, tipped away by Lloris. It was end-to-end, breathless, captivating stuff, the greatest 18 or so minutes in the history of World Cup Finals, where the line between victory and nowhere, triumph and despair, seemed as razor thin as it had ever been. The full-time whistle sounded and players, managers, spectators all collapsed for a few minutes, trying to process what we had just witnessed.
What would extra time look like? Argentina had appeared dead on their feet in the dying moments, but that could just as easily be a psychological consequence of the rapid succession of conceded goals. France were in the ascendant, seemingly unstoppable, but Messi’s late chance was a stern reminder that they were not retainers of the World Cup just yet. Indeed, the few minutes between full-time and the start of extra-time were just what Argentina needed, to reset, for Scaloni to remind his troops that the sun was going to come up tomorrow and that they just needed to get out there and play like they had done for 80 minutes.
Which they did, in a reduced enough fashion. The first half of extra-time was Argentina’s to be the better team in, but it was a 15 minutes exchange of nerves, of players trying to get their emotions in check and trying to regulate their tired limbs. Marcos Acuña, di Maria’s replacement, was offering none of the same pace and accuracy, and that was hamstringing his side. On the other side the French players that had salvaged a stalemate from the jaws of defeat were content to be more patient. Messi and Camavinga came together. An exhausted looking Rabiot made way for Youssouf Fofana. Romero slid in recklessly on Mbappé, with studs making firm contact on boot, but was saved a VAR call because the flag was up anyway. Mbappé, now everywhere, went off on a dribbling run down the left, and was only stopped when a mixture of four defenders and midfielders crowded him out.
De Paul, flinging himself into challenges and getting kicked every way he could be, made his way out, with an exhausted Álvarez joining him. On were Paredes and Lautaro Martínez, obvious selections for the state of play but also, as many noted, penalty takers. Not that this Martínez was thinking about that, not when his first shot was blocked by Upamecano, not when the rebound was barely deflected wide by Varane, and not when he was stopped by Upamecano again a minute later with another last-ditch tackle. They were all heroic moments, but were practically lost in a sea of heroic moments that the game had turned into.
Messi drew another save from Lloris early in the second half, before what seemed to be the moment of moments. Greatness always comes through: sometimes that’s in a scorcher planted into a bottom corner, sometimes it’s in an amazing solo run past an entire defence, sometimes it’s a header hit with pace and precision. But sometimes it is just in the intelligence to be in the right place at the right time. 108 minutes into this game that’s how Messi showed his greatness yet again. He’d already done enough to demonstrate that in slipping Martínez through down the right. Martínez’ shot was all power, and Lloris did all that he could do to be in the way and absorb that power. Holding onto the ball was out of the question. And there Messi was, with the wherewithal to continue his run, stay onside, and get the right contact on the bouncing ball to get it over the line, Upamecano’s last second intervention be damned.
An awed intake of breath, a maddening few seconds to make sure the ref had given it and that an offside call was not coming, then sheer, unadulterated bedlam. The Argentinian fans, quiet for so long, went crazy. Messi, and many others, seemed in tears. The Argentinian bench had emptied. Indeed, it was all too much, and from the comfort of my living room I was one of many to say the same: with ten minutes, at least, to play, Argentina were acting as if Messi had just made the last kick of the game. Their heads were gone, filled only with thoughts of Messi and that trophy and another glorious World Cup victory.
But France were not beaten, anymore than they were on 80 minutes. Argentina were time-wasting in the corner with eight minutes left, Paredes was scything into opposition players like a red card this late would have no material impact. It was all the motivation Les Bleus needed I think. It was Mbappé again, he really now popping up everywhere, to send an outside-the-box curler off the elbow of Gonzalo Montiel, a sub who had made little to no impact up to that point. By the letter of the law, cruelly since Montiel was turning away, it was a penalty. This decision seemed especially unreal, since the Argentinians were still acting like the game was up. Martínez at least would not be tortured by whether he could have done more this time, Mbappé sending him the wrong way to claim a hat-trick and level it again. This great big glorious game of football just kept on rolling.
The last three minutes of the game were an epic in themselves. No waiting around for penalties for these two sides, it was as if they knew a contest that had become this legendary deserved something more than that. Kolo Muani sent a looping header just wide, Martínez scrambling. The attacking Martínez had a shot kicked away by Lloris, before an offside flag sprang up. And then, in the real dying seconds, Kolo Muani, suddenly the man that everything was going through, find himself put in on goal from nothing, only the goalie to beat. What a moment it was. A goal here and there really would be no way back, France capping the comeback to end all comebacks with a replication of the scoreline from the last time the two teams had met. You couldn’t accuse Kolo Muani of botching it either, he waited for his moment and hit it well, low and with power.
But Martínez would not be beaten this time. The agony of being so close to stopping both of Mbappé’s goals in regular time must have been with him, along with that sheer stubborn refusal to concede that marked his dying seconds save from Garang Kuol against Australia, that has marked his journey from Rotherham to the Premier League. He rushed out, made himself both small and big in lowering his centre of gravity while getting his limbs out, and got the connection with the left boot. There have been better saves in the history of this sport, but combined with the arena, the amount of time left on the clock, with everything that was on the line, it has to be in contention to be the greatest save of all time.
And, somehow, there was still time for more. Martínez, the other one, badly fluffed a free header well wide, having been found from the right by a distraught looking Messi. And then, a minute passed the allotted injury time, Mbappé had one more chance, one more opportunity to torment Romero and Paredes, jinking this way and that inside the box before Paulo Dybala, sent on just to take a penalty, was able to boot the ball clear. Szymon Marciniak finally blew it. The game proper was over. All that was left was deciding who would win it.
The third World Cup Final to end in a shoot-out saw the spot-kicks taken at the Argentinian end, with the eyes of the world peeking through fingers. The idea that there was going to be a loser in this contest, that both Messi and Mbappé had excelled in in different ways, seemed anathema to the idea of justice, but we had to have a winner, and this was how we were going to find out who. You sensed that Argentina had the advantage, shooting into their end, with one shoot-out success to their name already in this tournament, but in this World Cup who could know for sure? And that was before you considered these two keepers and their involvement, with Martínez presumably buzzing with anticipation and Lloris as unflappable looking as he usually is. What a moment it all was.
Up first: the man of the hour. What could have been going through Mbappé’s head as he stepped up to try and score his third penalty of the day is anyone’s guess. Could it be possible that he would score a World Cup hat-trick and then falter here? He’s had such a good tournament, scored so many fine goals, it almost seemed written that it would be third time lucky for the goalkeeper. Not so. Again, again, Martínez got contact on the shot rifled to his right, and again it was not enough. Mbappé, three for three.
Of course up first for Argentina it had to be Messi, and if you could see the headlines about a Mbappé miss being written before that kick it was even more obvious that Messi would falter. He always looks nervous ahead of a spot-kick, a consequence perhaps of his small frame in such a situation. Was he due another miss? Could he possibly be in the right headspace? Once again it was Lloris who was the deciding factor, and again it was because of that little movement a split second too early. He went to his right, and Messi had the technique, the calm, to roll the ball gently the other way, so slowly that Lloris was almost able to dive back and stop it. He didn’t. The superstars of the night had one each in the shoot-out, as it should have been. Mbappé and Messi had done all that they could.
Coman next for France. He had been quiet, but instrumental, since his introduction, at the heart of French efforts to save themselves. Waiting, Martínez, a keeper whose shoot-out theatrics have became legend over the last few years, there to say a few unkind words, to insist that Marciniak delay proceedings by checking the ball was on the spot properly. Were we going score for score in this shoot-out? No. Coman went left, but not enough off centre. Martínez, utilising that modern technique of having that trailing foot just behind the line as he jumped forward, was equal to it. Advantage Argentina.
Dybala never got to play a full half worth of football in Qatar, his first appearance off the bench coming when it was all but over against Croatia in the Semi-Final. But he had the chance to etch his name in the annals of Argentinian footballing history regardless as he stepped up, having been brought on specifically to take the kick. That backfired for Spain earlier in the knock-outs, would it here? You could sense Lloris ready to be the hero but his urgency perhaps got the better of him, as he dived right when Dybala went straight down the middle. 2-1.
Now Martínez smelt blood. As Tchouaméni, all of 22 years old, made the long walk from the halfway line, the goalie whipped the Argentinian faithful behind him into a frenzy, then contemptuously tossed the ball to the side for the French midfielder to go retrieve: Marciniak probably should have flashed a yellow then, but to his discredit relented. Tchouaméni looked suitably intimidated it had to be said, perhaps wondering why Lloris wasn’t copying Martínez and handing the ball to his own kickers. Sometimes you just know a penalty taker is not up to the task, and Tchouaméni wasn’t in that moment. In desperation to get it beyond Martínez he pulled it far too wide, and the cardinal sin of failing to hit the target was realised.
Next up, Paredes, the king of Argentinian gamesmanship (in the outfield anyway), another brought on with a shoot-out in mind. A goal would only confirm the Argentinian advantage, a save or a miss would swing everything back the other way. He betrayed no nerves though, the ice cold demeanour the end product of probably hours spent imagining this very moment. Lloris stood tall, went left. Paredes went down the middle, but with a curl that actually brought it closer to Lloris’ foot than he could have intended. The French captain couldn’t get to it, despairingly close. 3-1, and match-point Argentina.
Kolo Muani, that miss at the end of extra time sure to be haunting him already, made the long trudge next. Martínez was finally booked for more antics, but he didn’t care, presumably. Save, and he was the hero. Score, and Argentina would have three more chances. Was this to be another situation like Bukayo Saka, sent up to take a kick when not psychologically ready for such a crushing burden? Kolo Muani defied the odds by smashing one down the middle, and we were still going.
Gonzalo Montiel. Brought on as desperately needed fresh legs in a defence that was crumbling, he was the villain of the piece at that moment, his handball the only reason that Argentina needed to take part in this nail-shredding exercise in the first place. Now he stood at the fulcrum. Succeed, and that stain would be wiped out, forgotten, replaced by an enduring image of being the man who scored the penalty that won Argentina the World Cup. Fail and that elbow would be the defining moment of his career. Surely Lloris was worth a save as well? Montiel betrayed few nerves as he made his run-up.
What did Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal think of it all I wonder? His free-kick set us all off a metaphorical lifetime ago, a beautiful goal probably destined to be forgotten by most. Was it fate that it was a set-piece that began it all, and now another that was ending it? From a pitch where a stray ball would end up hitting a passing car, to the eyes of the planet, of history, glaring down. Such is the World Cup, this roller-coaster of a four year cycle, that takes us all to the strangest parts of the world and to the most glaring, all fixated at the next kick of the ball, because it might just be the one that will change everything, get ours hearts racing, the blood pumping, become the iconic moment.
Lloris went right. Montiel went left. Argentina were the champions of the world.
It was difficult to fully comprehend what we had all just witnessed. Even Montiel’s celebration, whipping off his shirt as he jogged towards momentarily stunned Argentinian fans, not understanding what their team had achieved for a few startling moments, seemed to belie what had just happened. Then the cheering, the screaming, the tears, the embraces. French players hit the ground. A huddle of Argentinian players smothered Messi on the halfway line. The most epic contest, the most sublime manifestation of international football, had come to an end. Argentina had to do it three times, but had finally won it.
It was an incredible French effort. To pick themselves off the floor of being totally dominated for the vast majority of normal time to get back to level pegging, then do it again in extra time, showcases a strength in mentality that is among the most creditable in the history of the World Cup. New players, younger players, stepped up to save the day out there, and the day will come again for many of them. If there is a comfort for French fans everywhere it must be in that: a weak French team, battling illness, carrying knocks, with numerous players barely getting a few caps before things started in earnest, got all the way to the Final, to extra-time, to penalties. Mbappé, the winner of the Golden Boot, will be here again to lead them, and as soon as 2026 France will surely be among the favourites to win it all again. This defeat, so bitter in the moment, will be a source of pride in time, but it will also be a source of motivation. They could have won it, came so close, and Deschamps should have nothing but the highest of praise for his charges and what they delivered.
But this is not their story. This is the story of Argentina, the team that has emerged from the rancour and discontent of 2018, and in four wonderful years have won the lot available to them. The hero’s all add up: Emiliano Martínez, like him or hate him, a man who would not be beaten when it really counted; Nicolás Otamendi, the key man in the defence, fallible at times, but never lacking for determination; Alexis Mac Allister in midfield, a revelation, a fighting spirit whose finest hour came here; Rodrygo De Paul, willing to be kicked and to kick back as needed, a warrior; Angel di Maria, so close to being a forgotten man, putting in the performance of his life for one glorious hour; and so many others, all worthy of praise, all fighting for each themselves and for each other, all deserving of being part of the best team in the world.
But one outstrips them all. In the aftermath of that winning penalty Lionel Messi seemed to be almost stumbling around the pitch, in a daze, not quite believing what was going on around him, but always with this wonderful beaming smile on his face. He embraced his teammates. He embraced his mother in the stands. He embraced his wife and children. All the pressure was gone. He had done it all at last. The sense of closure was so infectiously appropriate that it felt like the whole world was standing up and cheering for him. His career had reached the final level of fulfilment. And he had done so in emphatic fashion on this day when it really counted, vanquishing the memory of 2014, of the last 36 years, with a fine individual performance, two goals and shoot-out success. Somewhere, off in the metaphorical distance, you could almost imagine the smiling ghost of Diego Maradona graciously fading away, his successor now taking firm possession of the mantle of being Argentina’s national icon. If football is a religion in Argentina then this was a moment of apotheosis for Lionel Messi, a footballer turned god, that we will speak of for generations to come, the greatest to ever play the game.
All that was left was to hand that beautiful golden trophy over. It took a while, and we had to look, bemused, as Messi was kited out in an Arabian bisht, to signify his own special importance. Gianni Infantino and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at the end of process of shame for FIFA and Qatar in how this tournament has come about, had to have their moment. But then Messi got his hands on the trophy, and almost tip-toed to join his waiting teammates on that podium, letting the anticipation build like a master show man, as if some cosmic force could still reach out and take it away.
I hope Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal was watching, and I hope he enjoyed the game as much as I did. He was there at the start, when every eligible FIFA member was sizing things up, laying out their practical expectations and dreaming of something bigger. From there we have seen six confederations work down the number of would-be qualifiers bit-by-bit, from the also-rans who never expected to have more than two games to the continental champions who didn’t even make it to the Finals. 32 only got that honour, and in a month of surprises and wonder, shocks and celebrations, they too were whittled down. Oh yes, there was triumph, there was despair and there was a whole lot in-between, as it is with football, as it should be. Here, at the end, was the moment we had all waited for. The cycle was over. Messi lifted the trophy into the night air. 211 had become 1.
Argentina* 3 – 3 France (P)
Epilogue: 1 To 211
A month after Gonzala Montiel’s last penalty the World Cup was back, albeit in a very different form. Instead of the Lusail, it was conference room in UEFA’s Swiss headquarters, and instead of Argentina and France, it was a cadre of UEFA officials and reps from national FA’s attending an Executive Committee meeting. The World Cup Final was the end of one cycle, but this was the beginning of a new one, at least for Europe. It was here that officials were to decide and then announce the format for UEFA’s qualification for the 2026 World Cup. Adaptation was required to some degree, to take into account increased allocation brought about by the change from 32 to 48 teams, a controversial topic that is liable to go on being controversial. It would be a lie to say that it was a tense affair: no actual draw was being made yesterday, just a decision and then announcement on format, and one that could be easily guessed at. All the same, this could be described as one of the starting points on a road that will lead, inexorably, to Canada, the United States and Mexico in just about four-and-a-half years time: the AFC and CONMEBOL already made similar announcements even before the last World Cup ended. It offers another moment of reflection for everything that occurred in the previous four years, culminating as it did in that glittering showcase a month ago.
Qatar 2022 was a strange affair. In many ways there were really two World Cups going on. One was what took place on pitches, when kick-off whistles were blown and we got to experience the collective joy that only takes place in the midst of such a magnetic competition. In that regard it was a great World Cup in my estimation, one filled with exciting contests at every stage, where even a number of scoreless draws could have been deemed entertaining. The best players in the world and the best teams in the world came together for one marvellous month of attack-filled football and, while it certainly helped that it was a tournament filled with shocks and surprises – the “bumps” of Argentinian newspapers – it was all the more special for the manner of its ending, where an irresistible force met an immovable object, and gave viewers the greatest World Cup Final ever played.
But the other World Cup was there too. It was the World Cup of greed and corruption, of inhumanity and callousness. It was inescapable, no matter how hard the leaderships of Qatar and FIFA tried to make us all forget. The bloodletting that facilitated this tournament taking place on this tiny peninsula could not be washed away by any number of “I feel…” platitudes. The hideous embarrassment of how symbols relating to LGBTQ+ rights were intentionally banned, the refusal to shake the hands of female officials, even something as fundamentally small-scale as a last minute change to regulations on serving alcohol all pointed to a World Cup run by people who were bigoted, sexist, tyrannical and utterly uncaring being so. Awarding this tournament to Qatar was a disgrace. That host means it will never likely be considered the greatest World Cup ever. How could it, when the graves of the migrant workers who made it possible remain burned into our minds? Over the past four years or so I hope I have done enough to register my own disgust at Qatar’s hosting, even if I did focus primarily on on-field matters. It should never have come to this, and there is no amount of money, or hobnobbing with Arabian elites, that will ever wipe the stain.
Yet for all that, I cannot lie and say I did not enjoy Qatar 2022 from a footballing perspective: at worst the larger situation was like an irritation in the mind’s eye, never letting you forget it was there, and rightfully so. I have a complicated relationship with the game at a club level, with negative emotions too often dominating positive ones regards such things, to the point that I have had to scale back my interaction with football at that strata in order to preserve my own mental health. I sum it up by quoting Billy Beane from Moneyball, in that I “hate losing more than I even wanna win” and any football where I have a personal investment tends to leave me distinctly unhappy in the long run as of late. In that regard tournaments like the World Cup constitute a refreshing chance to enjoy the sport again, as a true neutral who can rest easy from any allegiances or preferences, and just feel the joy that comes from seeing this sort of spectacle play out. That’s why I wrote this series, from day one of the cycle all the way to its conclusion. This World Cup has, many times over, reminded me why I love this sport, and why it always have a place in my heart.
I said, way back when, at the very start of this series that international football was “something special” in “the drama of it, the sense of history about it, the way it can grab a hold of you and suck you in”. I said that the nature of the World Cup specifically, where all 211 nations get their shot, showed that it was “as much for the Bhutan’s and Sri Lanka’s of the world as it is for the France’s and Brazil’s”. It’s a sentimental thought, that I acknowledge. But I hold to it. The captivating nature of this tournament is not just in the Final, where the last standing heavyweights duke it out, or in the larger Finals where the very best 32 get their chance, but in the larger qualification cycle, where representative teams from every corner of the earth get the chance to compete on a par with everyone else. For those brief shining moments, football is a great leveller, and a great storyteller.
It’s there in Tan Cheng Hoe’s efforts to get Malaysia past their own fan rancour and through the early stages of AFC qualification. It’s there in an examination of how football is used as a means of escape for those lucky enough to be sent abroad to represent Eritrea. It’s there in the remarkably civil games played out between North and South Korea. It’s there in how island specks like Anguilla keep trying, year-after-year, to be more than just rooted to the bottom of FIFA rankings. It’s there in how teams like Ireland try to re-invent, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. It’s there in how sporting participation becomes melded with a national culture in places like the Faroe Islands. It’s there in how long-suffering underachievers like Vietnam get back up every cycle and try again. It’s there in how minnows like the UAE utilise their own form of anti-football to compete with bigger teams. It’s there in how Mexico will pick themselves up and start the journey to get to quinto partido once again. It’s there in how Canada have worked themselves up from no-hoper to CONCACAF’s highest placed side. It’s there in how teams like Wales can go 64 years between World Cup appearances and never stop hoping. It’s there in how the teams of the OFC patiently waited their turn and then gave it their all in empty stadiums. It’s there in how Ukraine refused to stop trying even when their very nation faces an existential threat. All of this and more is what the World Cup is, to me and to so many others.
The other thing that it is, is never-ending. That trait is also intrinsic to football, at every level, and the World Cup is no exception. We use the word “cycle” and it is very apt. The moment the final ball was kicked in the Luzhniki in 2018 was the moment when one cycle ended and another one began, one that took us through all of the above and all the way to Qatar itself and to everything, wonderful or horrible, that occurred there. It’s one of the reasons we become so wedded to the sport: it’s hard not to when it never really lets up. I’ve spent a long time writing about this particular cycle, always knowing that football itself would not wait for me if I stopped keeping up. The World Cup waits for no one.
The delegates took their seats. The mics sprung to life. Later, the prepared announcement would be be made. We waited in anticipation for more stories, more glory, more controversy more triumph, despair and a whole lot-in-between, for 211 nations to take up their starting positions. The meeting started, and it all began again.
World Cup Champions
Teams Eliminated In The Quarter-Finals
Brazil, England, Netherlands, Portugal
Teams Eliminated In The Second Round
Australia, Japan, Korea (Republic), Poland, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, United States
Teams Eliminated In The First Round
Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Germany, Ghana, Iran, Mexico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Tunisia, Uruguay, Wales
Teams Eliminated In Qualification
Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Aruba, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalem, Bulgaria, Burkino Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Scotland, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States Virgin Islands, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe
American Samoa, Cook Islands, Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic), Saint Lucia, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu
To view more entries in this series, please click here to go to the index.
The Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow: Lionel Scaloni celebrates with the Argentina team after a 2018 World Cup qualifier. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Oft Imitated: Didier Deschamps at a 2018 friendly between France and Russia. Photo by Вячеслав Евдокимов, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
In Defence Of A Glorified Friendly: Sofyan Amrabat of Morocco during the World Cup. Photo by the Royal Federation Of Moroccan Football, reproduced, with cropping, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
The One: Argentina celebrate their World Cup victory. Photo by Football Pictures, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Epilogue: Street football in Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Hozyen Ahmed, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Pingback: 211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 Index | Never Felt Better
The 1896 Olympic football match is not a supposed match! I have more evidence and Olympic historians Fritz Wasner, Erik Bergvall and Peder Christian Andersen (all primary sources) include the Danish football win in the points earned by the Danish athletes during the 1896 Olympics. 3 points for 1st place, 2 points for 2nd place and 1 point for 3rd place. For football Denmark got 1 point since it was not an official Olympic game but a demonstration game (unofficially part of the 1896 programme). In total Denmark earned 11 points during the 1896 Games, 10 points at the official competitions plus 1 point at the unofficial (Football) competition.
I’m assuming you may have intended to comment on this piece? – https://neverfeltbetter.wordpress.com/2023/03/18/the-finals-1896-a-disputed-beginning/ I also must assume that you are the Nitzan Zilburg of rsssf.com? It’s an excellent resource, the work you’ve done there is outstanding.
I didn’t intend “supposed” in the pejorative I assure you, I was just reflecting the other viewpoints noted in the text. In hindsight perhaps it was a poor choice of words and I will amend, along with an additional note at the end of the piece reflecting your comment. Thank you for taking the time to read.