A month ago I let it be known what I wanted to see during the World Cup — “A World Cup that features, at last, the genius of Lionel Messi. A World Cup, taken over by Messi, in the way that Diego Maradona took over the 1986 World Cup and led Argentina to victory.”
Was that what I — we — got? No, not quite. But close enough to feel like the real thing. We did get a thrilling final, we did get a victory for Messi’s Argentina. So the great Messi — as good a player as I have ever seen during 80 years (yes, I’m really that old) of watching this bewitching sport — got what has been eluding him: World Cup fame.
A thoroughly gripping final. Six goals, but ... three were penalty kicks. I never find anything essentially exciting about the taking of a PK. Of course, the scoring or the saving of a PK can give a moment or two of excitement, but my preference is for a score during open play.
And, boy, did we ever get a perfect example of that when Argentina scored its second goal at the 35th minute. As smooth and swift a passing movement as could be wished for, 10 seconds of soccer perfection as Messi, Julian Alvarez and Alexis Mac Alister rolled the ball beautifully forward until Mac Alister offered a couldn’t-be-missed assist to Angel Di Maria. Di Maria didn’t miss — but the way he managed to lift the ball over the diving goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was something to see.
Argentina was flying — only to be dramatically shot down by some great play from Kylian Mbappe — a rasping penalty kick and then a powerful volley within a two-minute span, and the game was tied 2-2.
What could Messi do about that? He could do all that was needed, as Lloris parried Lautaro Martinez’s shot, Messi was first to the rebound. So it was 3-2 Argentina with just 5 minutes remaining in overtime.
But Messi’s moment, to hold up the World Cup, was to be ruined again, and again it was Mbappe who wrecked everything. Or maybe it was Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel who should be blamed for getting his arm in the way of the ball and conceding a penalty kick. Mbappe slammed that one home, too, for his hat trick (the first in a World Cup final since Geoff Hurst’s for England 56 years ago).
That goal took the game into a shootout. I loathe everything to do with the shootout. Enough said. This time, the shootout managed to produce the right winner — Argentina. They deserved their win ... but, I wonder, did France deserve to lose?
No, I don’t believe they did. Certainly the action on the field was pretty even. That 3-3 score line at the end of overtime was an accurate reflection of two tightly matched teams. But Argentina, of course, had Messi — one of the all-time greats looking for the grand climax to his superb career. Maybe that can be seen as irrelevant to the day’s scoreline, but I think it matters.
Messi got his reward. I almost feel that the sport owed him that, for all the pleasure he has given with his magical play. But if I’m thinking about a player who honors the sport, then how can I not also be looking at France’s Kylian Mbappe? Here was another individual who got a reward. He turned in a magnificent tournament-long performance. Excitement took over whenever he got the ball. A player who made things happen. A player who is only 23. A player who, we all know, we’ll be seeing a lot more of. And, as it happens, a player who is a teammate of Messi. And the player who won the FIFA Golden Boot Award as the top scorer in Qatar.
Much of what I have written above is about goals and goalscoring. As it should be. Back in 1990, then-President of FIFA Joseph Blatter announced FIFA’s plans for the next decade. “Scoring goals is the most enjoyable activity on the field,” he asserted, so “Go for Goal!” would be FIFA’s slogan for the 1990s.
Blatter got it right, but his own FIFA wasn’t listening. The sport seemed determined to be as low-scoring as possible. The direct result of that attitude was a succession of drab defense-dominated final games in virtually all the major competitions.
Now we’ve just had World Cup 2022 to show us what we’ve been missing. Maybe six goals in a splendidly exciting World Cup final (even when half of them came from penalty kicks) will open some eyes to just how important goals are in the makeup of the game. And just how vital it is to nurture dynamic goalscoring players like Messi and Mbappe.
And ... a vain hope, probably, but worth promoting — maybe the sport can be left to live by its own intrinsic excitement, and all those TV commentators (yikes, there must be hundreds of them) who flood the air waves with incessant yakking about the wonders and cleverness of obscure, arcane and ultimately totally boring tactical hogwash (some of it, I feel sure, hastily improvised by the commentators themselves). For a start, they could stop telling us about the “false number nine” while never telling us what a real number nine is or does.
P.S. Somehow or other I got things slightly wrong, when after this year's sparkling MLS final I expressed doubt that this World Cup could produce a better final than MLS Cup 2022.