Following a World Cup full of drama, there was no shortage of narratives heading into the 2022 World Cup Final, both on and off the pitch. Perhaps the two biggest storylines, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, currently share the pitch together at the club level for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). A heavyweight matchup between an aging icon and a legend in the making was billed for the final, and these two truly delivered on the world’s biggest stage.
Little love was shown between the two over a grueling 120 minutes plus penalties that ultimately saw Lionel Messi’s Argentina triumph as years of struggle at the international level came to a glorious end. After a dominant 70 or so minutes from Argentina inspired by Messi and Angel Di Maria turning back the clock, Mbappe came to life with France 2-0 down.
Just 90 seconds after converting a penalty, he scored a ridiculous first-time volley few in world football would think to attempt. Despite again equalizing in extra time through a penalty and scoring in the shootout, making him 3/3 on penalties against a notoriously tough keeper, he wasn’t able to drag France over the line. Mbappe capped off an electrifying tournament with a fitting performance that brought him up to 8 goals and 2 assists in total.
In the end, he was unlucky to stand next to the three Argentinians with just a Golden Boot to show for his efforts throughout the tournament. Mbappe won’t want sympathy though, because at 24 years of age, he will be coming for every title imaginable over the next decade and will likely break every World Cup scoring record in the books.
Speaking of records, Lionel Messi became the first player to score in every round of the World Cup as he led his team to victory, one long-awaited specifically in Argentina but generally by football fans around the world. Treated with cult-like reverence in his home country and within this squad, Messi was wonderfully supported by Lionel Scaloni’s flexible tactics and a die-hard group of players who wanted to give a gift back to the player who’s given so much for his country.
It’s rare in this day and age to see a team at this level so focused on one individual, but even at 35 years old Messi’s ability to influence a match remains unmatched. After a loss in the first match to Saudi Arabia, the world was worried that Messi’s career might fizzle out on the biggest stage. And for 60 minutes against Mexico, it really looked like this might happen, until he stepped up.
A difficult pass is received on the top of the box with a small bobble, and without so much as a look at goal he lashes the ball as neatly into the bottom corner as possible. From that moment, there was no looking back. Scaloni continually altered Argentina’s set-up to maximize Messi against the opposition, with the biggest example being a switch to a 3-5-2 to match the Netherlands. Despite the change, the Dutch clawed back from 2-0 down to take the quarterfinal round to 120 minutes which again put Argentina’s dream in jeopardy.
While Messi may have walked around the pitch for much of this tournament, he never faded from the game or let his influence wane for more than minutes at a time. Major credit must be given to Scaloni for his tactics, as well as goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and forward Julian Alvarez for their massive parts in Argentina’s success. But the star of the show, the star of the story, was always going to be Lionel.
Throughout his career Messi has been seen as the heir to Diego Maradona’s throne in Argentina, giving absolutely everything to make his people proud. And up to this point, it had been his greatest “failure”, one that weighed so heavily he momentarily quit following a Copa America defeat in 2016. After finally getting a Copa America last year, his first major international trophy, it seemed as though part of the weight had been lifted from his shoulders while a bigger fire had been lit in his belly.
If there’s one thing you could say Messi has lacked at times, it may be that he never had that outward fire that teammates could look to in moments of weakness, something Argentinians in particular are quick to point out. Usually, it’s because he didn’t need it, he was too good for dirty tricks or to let emotion get in the way of his game. And usually his teammates saw his greatness and rose to the occasion or were elevated in other ways by his performances, but Argentina needed a different Messi.
They needed someone who wanted it so bad he was making up imaginary fights with the Dutch bench, they needed someone who was ready to celebrate in the face of all of his rivals, someone ready to accept his own greatness and lead this group that was built for him. They needed more than the man of iconic goals and magnificent moments, they needed an icon to be inspired by. They needed this Messi.
And while it was never going to be easy, few could’ve anticipated it would end up being this difficult up to the last moments. But a 2-0 canter to the trophy wasn’t in the script, Messi’s moment was meant to be more than that. Come the 108th minute, plus two ~7-minute injury time periods, the little magician was crucially involved in the buildup that led to his scrambled shot getting over the line.
Pure elation as he fired up the Argentina crowd after the celebrations. There would be one last hurdle to climb as Mbappe equalized yet again, but Messi’s first penalty and Emiliano Martinez’s stature in penalty shootouts did just enough.
Despite countless records and iconic moments, few will be remembered as widely as this achievement, with Messi’s goals and leadership playing a crucial role in both an epic final and a tournament. About as dramatic as it could’ve been, two heavyweights delivered the final of a lifetime with a fairytale ending fit for the greatest career world football has ever seen. Thank you for everything, Leo.
By: Jack Ashby / @jtashby12
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Nelson Almeida – AFP