Halfway through the second half of the semifinal between Argentina and Croatia, Lionel Messi received the ball on the right flank just past the halfway line. He found himself one on one with the Croatian center back Joško Gvardiol, one of the best defenders of the tournament. Keeping the ball characteristically close to his feet, the 35-year-old Messi accelerated and dribbled right past the twenty-year-old. An older, more seasoned player might have known at this point that the battle was already lost and just pulled Messi to the floor before he could reach the box (like Giorgio Chiellini did to Bukayo Saka in the European Final in 2020), but Gvardiol, young and full of confidence, believed he could handle the aging superstar. With a quick glance over his shoulder, Messi saw that Gvardiol was catching up, so he slowed down to let him, turned to face the sideline and then dropped his right shoulder as if he was going to turn inside. As Gvardiol fell for the feint, Messi turned the other way and then, before the Croatian could fully recover, accelerated again and played a perfect ball to the young striker Julian Álvarez, who buried the ball into the back of the net. (The joke afterwards was that in ten seconds Messi had reduced the young defender’s market value by thirty million pounds.)
The sensational run showcased why many believe that magical Messi is the greatest player of all time: his peerless vision; his unbelievable balance; his surprising strength that belies his diminutive stature; his quick, unreadable short strides; his unrivaled deceleration; his ability to keep the ball within teasing but not touching distance of defenders; his flawless technique; and his uncanny, purely instinctive awareness of exactly what to do when. It was certainly more proof that Messi had, again, outshone Cristiano Ronaldo. It wasn’t just that at 35 he was still capable of absolutely embarrassing one of the best defenders in the world, but that, unlike his longtime rival, he had showed himself willing and able to adapt his game. This year, when things haven’t gone Ronaldo’s way, whether for club or country, he has stomped around like an angry toddler. The aging CR7 has stubbornly refused to acknowledge what is clear to even his most ardent fans: his physical prowess is diminishing. Messi, in contrast, has proven that even though he has lost acceleration, he can be just as dangerous. Prime Barcelona Messi wouldn’t have needed to beat Gvardiol three times, he would have just run straight past him toward the middle of the field. He wouldn’t have needed to pass to a teammate, he would have just scored himself. Post-prime Paris Saint-Germain Messi knows his limits, but he is no less breathtaking.
For some, even this was apparently not enough. To cement his GOAT status, Messi needed to win the World Cup. You see, they said, it’s not actually about Ronaldo, it’s about Diego Maradona, who in 1986 had singlehandedly dragged a mediocre Argentina team to World Cup glory. Over and over, the pundits kept asking the same question: If Messi retires without winning the World Cup, could he really call himself the equal of his compatriot?
In the lead-up to this final, the press conjured up another contender for the title: Kylian Mbappé. This made for good headlines, even though it is on its face a ludicrous suggestion. Mbappé is only 23, and his achievements so far necessarily pale in comparison to his PSG teammate. Still, in 2018, Mbappé was the breakout star, and as a teenager in his first attempt, he did what Messi had been unable to his entire career: win the World Cup. Ahead of Sunday’s final, the frenzied press could talk of nothing but Messi and Mbappé. Would Messi finally win the ultimate prize in football? Or would Mbappé win two World Cups before the age of 24? The analysts barely stopped to mention the other twenty men who would be on the field, or the two managers who would be making all the decisions.
Argentina, who started the tournament with a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia, started the final by establishing control. To a man, they played with belief, energy and purpose. From the whistle, Ángel Di María, back in the starting lineup after a slight quad injury, caused France all sorts of problems. In the 21st minute, Di María made a cutting run into the box, letting his leg trail just long enough to draw the foul and gift his longtime teammate and captain a penalty. Messi, after a long, deep breath, watched and waited patiently for Hugo Lloris to shift his weight before nonchalantly side-footing the ball into the net. Shortly afterwards, in a beautiful sequence that flowed through Messi, Di María scored. Tears of joy for Di María; ecstasy for all of Argentina. Finally, Messi would claim his rightful throne.
The defending champions appeared to have no response: France looked enervated, almost absent. Perhaps the virus that had reportedly spread through their ranks really had brought them low. Antoine Griezmann, who had been spectacular all tournament, looked totally out of ideas. Olivier Giroud barely touched the ball. Mbappé, the player the media had declared Messi’s heir and challenger, seemed to have vanished. Perhaps this French team were finally missing their injured superstars: Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. Didier Deschamps, in a bold if desperate attempt to retake control, made two substitutions before halftime.
Nothing seemed to work for France, until it did. With barely ten minutes left, the Argentinian defender Nicolás Otamendi took down Randal Kola Muani in the box and gave Mbappé a chance to level Messi in the race for the Golden Boot. Mbappé’s penalty grazed goalie Emi Martínez’s fingers, but it made its way to the bottom left corner. Newly animated, as if the goal had injected him with the confidence and energy he had lacked for the first sixty or so minutes, Mbappé rushed past the goalkeeper to collect the ball and quickly restart the game. Less than two minutes later, after a brilliant one-two with Marcus Thuram, he hit a spectacular volley into the back of the net.
What on earth was happening? The crowd was astonished; the commentators momentarily speechless; the Argentinians shell-shocked. Each time the camera cut to Emmanuel Macron, the frenzied French president seemed to have removed one more item of clothing. At one point, I worried that we were a few minutes away from him ripping off his shirt to reveal the Tricolore painted on his bare chest.
The thirty minutes of extra time followed the same narrative arc as the initial ninety: the first half was ordinary, the second half extraordinary. In the 108th minute, Messi scored again—a messy, scrambling goal. Mbappé, with preposterous stubbornness, simply refused to accept defeat. Ten minutes later he rocketed a ball toward the goal and it caught the elbow of Gonzalo Montiel, setting Mbappé up for penalty number two. In the second half of added time, the 23-year-old became the second player in history to score a hat trick in the World Cup final. Often, Mbappé gives off an air of nonchalance—he looks bored by the whole affair, until the ball falls to his feet and he takes off with electric speed—but for a short spell on Sunday, lackadaisical Mbappé transformed into Mamba-mentality Mbappé. He played like a man possessed. Was he actually going to ruin Messi’s coronation?
Yet when the end of extra time brought the penalty shootout, it seemed inevitable that Emi Martínez, the current king of shithousery, would win the day. He didn’t disappoint. Before France’s third penalty, Martínez threw the ball to the edge of the box and made Aurélien Tchouaméni play fetch. It was enough: Tchouaméni sent the ball wide. Martínez, triumphant, pranced around like a peacock in mating season. Minutes later, Montiel scored to make Argentina champions. Messi, finally, had his World Cup.
GOAT debates proliferate across sports: Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal (or Novak Djokovic)? LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli? (More farcically, Serena Williams or Margaret Court?) For the past two decades, the question in football has usually been: Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Devoted fans on either side often turn to statistics and records to win the argument: club goals, international goals, goals per minute, assists, league titles, Champions Leagues, Ballons D’Or. It’s all quite silly, but it is also irresolvable. It is irresolvable because the debates are never really about numbers; they are about tastes, inclinations, even values. They parade as conversations about talent and achievement, but they are always actually about what counts as athletic excellence. If you admire pure determination, work ethic and gravity-defying athleticism, Ronaldo is your man. If, instead, you prefer graceful, poetic dribbling and the sheer marvel of otherworldly talent, there is no one like Messi.
Yet for many, even some staunch Ronaldo fans, Argentina’s victory put an end to the endless debate. To them, Messi is now, indisputably, the greatest ever. This is, of course, the wrong lesson from Sunday. First, because whether they won or lost, Messi would still be the best ever. Second, even if Messi scored twice, Argentina won as team: Di María was brilliant, Rodrigo De Paul (unfairly maligned as Messi’s bodyguard) was crucial and Martínez was outstanding. Third, Mbappé was better than Messi in the game. Fourth, and above all, the obsession with crowning one player in a team sport is immature at best, corrupting at worst. The best of what football can be is never about individual excellence; magnificent football is always about the team.
The most transcendent moments of this tournament were not the sublime goals that will be replayed on SportsCenter (like Salem Al-Dawsari’s stunning strike against the eventual champions, or Luis Chávez’s blinding free kick, or even Richarlison’s absurd bicycle kick), but instead the inch-perfect passes from one teammate to another. No single strike can compare to the third goal Brazil scored against South Korea: post-head dribble Richarlison finding Marquinhos who slid the ball to Thiago Silva who passed back to Richarlison who then finally scored. Jogo Bonito indeed. The goal itself seemed somehow beside the point; the joy was in the passing, and then the dancing. Even Messi and Mbappé were at their best when they were playing with and for their teammates. Messi’s highlight this tournament—that run against Gvardiol—was an assist to a young rising star; for all his individual determination in the final, it was his one-two with Thuram that showed Mbappé at his best. What makes football so gorgeous and so moving is that it offers us an opportunity to watch great athletes in sync, to see them move together as if they can read each other’s minds, to witness individuals becoming more than the sum of their parts.
But Sunday did ignite yet another GOAT debate: Was the 2022 World Cup final the best sports game ever? It felt like that to me.
Read Tara’s previous World Cup dispatches on Forms of Life.
Image credit: soccer.ru (CC / BY 3.0)