In a game that is already being touted as one of the greatest World Cup finals in history, Lionel Messi has led Argentina to their first trophy in 36 years after defeating France 4-2 on penalties at Qatar’s fittingly-named “Iconic” Stadium on Monday morning.
Here are five big talking points from the match.
Argentina’s perfect goal
Bill Shankly once said: “Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better.” And when Argentina scored their second goal in the 34th minute, the world was reminded that with all the advancements in data-driven metrics and complex tactics and flexible formations, football is, at its heart, about getting the simple things right.
In just five touches La albiceleste’s front five players rotated like a delicately choreographed ballet, making their way from their own defensive third to France’s penalty area, with veteran winger Angel Di Maria curling past Hugo Lloris to extend his side’s lead.
It was like music and maths rolled into one — a Golden Ratio of a goal that not only illustrated how perfectly head coach Lionel Scaloni has struck the right chords with this Argentina team, balancing and complementing the hefty star power of Messi and Di Maria with lesser-known players like Javier Alvarez and Alex Mac Allister, but also how utterly and beautifully effective simple football can be. Shankly would be proud.
Didier Deschamps’s tactical masterstroke
Half-time had not even arrived before the fourth official lifted his electronic board to indicate a substitution.
France had barely put up a fight in the opening stanza of the match, and head coach Didier Deschamps had seen enough. Withdrawing the experienced Olivier Giroud and speedy winger Ousamane Dembele, neither of whom had offered much attacking threat, he introduced the younger, less predictable forwards Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani.
Social media was abuzz. What was Deschamps thinking? This was a huge gamble — either the move of a man who’s thrown all his cards to the wind or someone who has an ace up his sleeve.
As it turns out, it was the latter. As Mbappe began to impress himself on the game and Argentina began to tire, both substitutes made their impact: Muani being tripped by defender Nicholas Otamendi to win France’s first penalty, while a little one-two passing move with Thuram saw Mbappe bury the equaliser soon afterwards.
And while the two youngsters may not have won the World Cup this time around, their influence has shown that the future of French football remains bright — especially with the dazzling Kylian Mbappe at its forefront. Speaking of…
A hat-trick for the ages
We knew that this final would not just be a meeting of two teams, but of two players. While Lionel Messi emerged the ultimate victor, it was Mbappe who single-handedly threatened to stop his PSG teammate’s fairytale in its tracks.
It took 70 minutes before France registered their first shot on target of the whole game, with Mbappe himself simply barrelling through Argentina’s midfield and putting his hopeful laces through the rubber.
That tenacious moment was enough for the momentum to swing in France’s favour, and 10 minutes later, Mbappe had scored a penalty and equalised with a stunning volley that required an otherworldly contortion of his body to bury in the back of the net.
Mbappe added a third in extra time, coming from behind once again to score France’s second penalty of the game and ultimately push the game to a dramatic penalty shootout.
He became just the second male footballer since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966 to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final, with the third goal allowing him to squeak past Messi to win the Golden Boot. And all before his 24th birthday. Madness.
The penalty shootout that turned Messi into a Messiah
After 120 minutes of thrilling, breathless football, the referee’s whistle rang out to send the decider to its ultimate dramatic close: penalties.
Penalty shootouts are a cruel and unusual way to decide a game at the best of times, let alone a World Cup final with so much on the line. No matter how well you’ve played, no matter the ebbs and flows of the game that came before, everything boils down to one goalkeeper, one taker, and one kick.
It was perhaps no surprise that the two talismanic figures of Argentina and France, Messi and Mbappe, stepped up first and coolly slotted their penalties home. But beyond these two, the hero of this match was undoubtedly Argentina’s goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez: the man whose armpit denied the Socceroos a last-gasp equaliser in the Round of 16, the man who was playing in England’s third tier just a dozen years ago, the man who considered retiring before earning a life-changing move to Aston Villa and a call-up to his country.
It was Martinez who spread himself wide to prevent Kolo Muani from a potential winner in the 123rd minute, ensuring the game would be pushed to penalties, where he went on to save France’s second by Kingsley Coman and watch their third by Aurelien Tchouameni roll wide of his right post.
The 30-year-old won the Golden Glove for the World Cup’s best goalkeeper, and celebrated by holding it to his crotch and thrusting it like a kid with a garden hose.
But the defining image of the shootout was Messi, as Gonzalo Montiel dispatched the winner, immediately collapsing to his knees and bursting into tears after finally winning the trophy that was so close to slipping away forever.
After a record 26 World Cup finals appearances, becoming the first male player to score in every round of a 32-team tournament, the first to have 20 goal involvements, the most minutes ever played here, all while equalling Pele’s record of 12 goals in five World Cups, his trophy collection is finally, gloriously, complete.
The GOAT’s robes
While the game itself seemed to fly past in 120 minutes, the trophy ceremony that followed slowed to a crawl, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino seemingly wanting to make the moment last as long as humanly possible while standing alongside Qatar’s emir, the presidents of France and Argentina, and a whole host of other powerful men lined up along the stage.
As if the past few years’ worth of negative media coverage hadn’t reminded us of the shadow that has engulfed this tournament since its awarding back in 2010, Infantino had to make the metaphor even more awkwardly literal, draping Messi in a sheer black robe laced with gold trim as he held the World Cup trophy in his own hands for the very first time.
He then hovered over Messi for several steps as the Argentina captain moved towards his expectant team, with the FIFA boss having to be marshalled by the nearby emir to allow Messi his moment in the sun.
Social media did not react kindly to the now-iconic image of the Golden Ball winner hoisting the World Cup trophy with his blue-and-white jersey, worn by millions around the world, obscured by the unfamiliar black robes forced upon him by those in power: a moment of celebration forever tainted by the reminder of the darkness that made it possible.