We’ll never properly know who the greatest footballer of all-time is because semi-reliable records only start in the 19th century. We do know that football was such a compelling distraction in the 14th century that King Edward III banned it, and 200 years later Henry VIII did the same. When you’ve invented the perfect sport you can ban it (if you’re a monarch, generally) but it will keep coming back. Perhaps there was a player in the 17th century who was better than Lionel Messi, perhaps there was a player in the 1980s who was. It’s a matter of debate, but frankly when there’s a World Cup final featuring Messi and Kylian Mbappé taking place, right in front of your eyes, irl, then it’s time to stop looking at the past and enjoy what’s happening in the present.
And then, to make it just a little bit more prosaic, Brighton and Villa had a player featuring in a World Cup final for the first time. Whether it’s 1349 or December 2022, you have to love this sport.
Amid all the talk of the big players whose names begin with M [#BPWNBWM] France were able to field the semi-unsung player of the tournament thus far Antoine Griezmann for the 73rd international in a row, while Argentina were able to select Ángel Di María, the man they missed so much in the 2014 final. And it was Argentina who started on the front foot, against a nervous-looking France. Alexis Mac Allister had a decent shot from range in the fifth minute, Rodrigo de Paul shot wide three minutes later and then there was an intra-Tottenham episode of violence when Cristian Romero winded Hugo Lloris with a stray elbow.
Ángel Di María, that loping, eternal option out wide, had a wild shot in the 17th minute but six minutes later made a decisive contribution when he won a penalty after ghosting past Ousmane Dembélé before being fouled by the Barcelona player. Yet another Argentina penalty at this World Cup (five in a single edition is a record and is also 31% of Argentina’s all-time total) and the chance for Messi to do something that Diego Maradona never did, score in a World Cup final.
And he did. And he would again.
Casually sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way, Messi scored Argentina’s first goal in a World Cup final since 1986, and ensured that he is the the first player to score in the groups, the last 16, the quarter-final, the semi-final and the final. He is also the sixth player in history to score in a World Cup and Champions League/European Cup finals and the first South American to do so. He is Lionel Messi and he had turned up. Had the French? Not really.
That point was underlined in the 36th minute when Argentina scored their second goal, Di María sweeping home a majestic move that involved Messi and a perfectly weighted assist from Mac Allister. While Argentina wildly celebrated one of the best team goals ever seen in a World Cup final, France were yet to have a shot and it would stay that way when the half-time whistle blew. By which point Didier Deschamps had already seen enough, and hauled off Olivier Giroud and Dembélé for Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani respectively. The first ever double substitution in the first half of a World Cup final. Somewhere Jimmy Greaves was looking on wistfully.
But not as much regret as France, who trudged off for what was surely one of the most combustible half-time team talks in football history. They simply hadn’t turned up, and what a stage to (not) do it on. Is 2-0 actually a dangerous lead? We were about to find out.
Argentina were understandably a little more contained in the early stages of the second half, but it was still the players in light blue and white who were creating the opportunities, with Rodrigo de Paul, Alvarez and Messi all having efforts. The hour point of the game came and France still hadn’t had a single shot of any kind in the entire match. France. In the World Cup final. No shots. Unprecedented.
One reason that it is actually difficult to compare players from different eras is that the sport we call football has changed so much. The 1966 World Cup final – which did go to extra-time, of course – contained a record 77 shots; it took France until the 68th minute to muster their first in this game, Kolo Muani heading wide from a corner. The tectonic plates shifted slightly, and Mbappé had France’s second shot, hit well over. Coman and Camavinga came on in a final twist from Deschamps but surely it was too little, too late.
Football, though. Isn’t it.
79 minutes: Nicolás Otamendi concedes a penalty by fouling Kolo Muani
80: minutes: Kylian Mbappé thumps home the spot-kick, becoming the youngest player to score 10+ World Cup goals
81 minutes: one minute, 37 seconds after making it 1-2, Mbappé volleys home his second after being set up by the excellent Marcus Thuram. A shot befitting a World Cup final. The shortest recorded gap between two goals in a World Cup final. This game will send you mad sometimes. Mad with joy and mad with despair.
Argentina could see the World Cup, they could smell the World Cup [mostly the sort of polish you use on gold] but in the space of a few minutes the picnic rug had been pulled from underneath them.
France, who were dead and buried, were now on the front foot. No team had come back from two goals down in a final to win since West Germany in 1954 but when you have Kylian Mbappé you can expect almost anything. Even so, we almost had the ultimate dose of 110% pure artisan narrative when Lionel Messi lashed a shot at goal on 96:36. It was hit with the rage of a careers-worth of desire but Hugo Lloris was – just – equal to it. An additional 30 minutes of play in one of the best World Cup finals this silly little planet has ever witnessed? Yes please.
France have the deepest squad in world football and that is a useful thing when you go into extra-time in a World Cup final. While Argentina’s effectiveness waned after they substituted Di María, the French were able to call on the likes of Youssouf Fofana and Camavinga who were increasingly effective as extra-time played out. But wait. Lautaro Martínez, who had come on for Álvarez, was fed in the box only to find Dayot Upamecano making a block so good you should be able to buy it from Lego. The World Cup final which had it all just kept serving up: events.
And when I say had it all, how about Lionel Messi scoring his 100th right-footed goal to surely give Argentina the win, VAR declaring the move onside thanks to Raphael Varane’s muscular behind. The drama, the body shape, the narrative, the weights regime.
But Kylian Mbappé doesn’t let games drift away from him like that, as we saw in normal time. He struck the ball from outside the box and it was handled by Gonzalo Montiel. Another French penalty and a chance for an Mbappé hat-trick. The Geoff Hurst household braced themselves as France’s phenom smashed it home, becoming the second player in football history to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. It was the 172nd goal of this World Cup, a new record. Frankly it was hard to keep up at this point.
There was still time for Lautaro Martínez to miss a sitter and for Emi Martinez to save from the superb Kolo Muani before this game, this blessed, ridiculous match, finally ended, and went to penalties. Argentina had played a World Cup record 792:09 minutes in this tournament and it all came down to this.
In a pleasing development, France and Argentina chose to use Mbappé and Messi as their opening penalty takers, no “save me until the fifth effort” nonsense here. Both scored, Mbappé showing incredible composure to score a third penalty past Martínez in the same game, Messi with one of the most audacious gentle finishes the sport has witnessed. The great pair were in the clear but it was now over to the supporting cast, and sadly for France it was Coman and Tchouameni who failed with their efforts, leaving Gonzalo Montiel, the man who had conceded the penalty from which France made it 3-3 to became a national hero by scoring the winning penalty. Argentina are world champions. Lionel Messi is a World Cup winner. Football is undefeated.
So Lionel Messi finally has his World Cup winners medal. He did something that Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t and carried his team to a World Cup victory. And yet we shouldn’t discount the efforts of his supporting cast. Mac Allister, Di María, Romero, de Paul, the supervillain Emi Martinez. Unlike in 2014, this was a football team who happened to have Messi as the ultimate component part. The eternal debate over who is the greatest player is distracting but just as Edward III realised 700 years ago, this is the definitive team game and it entrances us all. Who is the true GOAT? The person who invented football. Thank you.