Argentina vs. France Was the Best World Cup Final I’ve Ever Seen

Pick the best moment of the match. It seems impossible. The Lionel Messi flick pass that oiled the move that led to Argentina’s beautiful second goal? Sumptuous. Try another. Kylian Mbappé’s volleyed finish from the edge of the penalty area, to take the contest to 2–2, and extra time? Dazzling. One more, or perhaps two? The rampant French attack in the final minutes of injury time, with the match tied at 3–3, that preceded a one-footed save by Argentina’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez? The lightning Argentina counterattack that immediately followed it, and then the missed header to win the match? I think I held my breath for a minute.

This was the best World Cup final I have ever seen, that perhaps anyone has ever seen—a match stuffed full of so many remarkable incidents, so much tension, such dramatic momentum swings, such joy. It was soccer played con brio. As my colleague Sam Knight wrote yesterday, the organizers of this strange and costly World Cup got exactly what they paid for when France and Argentina reached the final: two great teams, with the world’s biggest stars, facing off. This evening, in Doha, the Qataris must have felt as if they had won the lottery.

The match did not seem destined to be a classic. For most of regular time, it appeared as if the occasion might serve simply as a coronation for Messi, as Argentina and its impish talisman utterly outplayed France. In the first half, Argentina’s hunger and skill dominated France. Antoine Griezmann, the French playmaker who has shone at this World Cup, was invisible. Mbappé scarcely received the ball. France did not have a single touch in the Argentinean box. It was as if the French players were in the grip of a powerful sedative. I was reminded of the fine Brazil team of 1998, which waltzed through the tournament and wilted in the final.

Argentina, meanwhile, was irrepressible. Its midfielders pounced on every loose ball. Rodrigo De Paul and Alexis Mac Allister were voracious. Again and again, Messi found his fellow-veteran Ángel Di María in space on the left wing. Di María jinked and feinted past French defenders. One such sleight, in which Di María bamboozled Ousmane Dembélé, led to a penalty kick that Messi coolly scored. 1–0. Argentina’s second goal—a sweeping move finished by Di María—was redolent of the famous Carlos Alberto goal for Brazil at the 1970 World Cup. 2–0. Didier Deschamps, the French manager, was so disheartened by his team’s performance that he made two substitutions before halftime. Both were inspired. Randal Kolo Muani, the powerful Eintracht Frankfurt forward, came on for the foxed Dembélé. Marcus Thuram replaced Olivier Giroud.

In the second half, Argentina appeared to sit off France. There was some time-wasting. Di María, whose performance had been outstanding but whose fitness was in doubt, was substituted in the sixty-fourth minute. Kolo Muani began to influence the match, as he pressed defenders with a hunger that had previously evaded his teammates. It was his run that drew a foul from Nicolás Otamendi in the seventy-ninth minute, and a penalty kick to France. Mbappé drove the penalty into the left-hand corner. 2–1. Ninety seconds later, Messi was dispossessed dribbling in midfield. Mbappé exchanged the ball with Thuram before striking the sweetest volley past Martínez. 2–2. Argentina appeared deflated. France, suddenly, looked like it was about to win the match.

You could write a novel about what happened after the French equalizer. I won’t. Argentina just about survived until the final whistle blew for regulation time. In the extra thirty minutes, both teams swung at each other as if they were exhausted boxers in the final rounds of a championship bout. The French substitutes had injected new life into the team, but so did Argentina’s. Lautaro Martínez, who replaced the striker Julián Álvarez, looked sharp. In the second half of extra time, with the match still at 2–2, Argentina seemed to regain its slickness in attack. A rapier series of passes between Lautaro Martínez and Messi led to a shot for Martínez. The French goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, parried, but Messi scrambled the ball over the line. 3–2. On the substitutes’ bench, Di María wept: from happiness, or relief, or tension, or all three. Many other spectators, including in my house, felt the same way. The tears continued when an Mbappé shot found the arm of an Argentinean defender, with less than five minutes of extra time to play. Penalty kick. Mbappé slotted the penalty, becoming the first player since England’s Sir Geoff Hurst, in 1966, to score a hat trick in a World Cup final.

Still there were more twists. Mbappé scorched around the field, confounding defenders. With five seconds of regulation extra time left, he found Kolo Muani with a perfect cross. His teammate touched the ball with his head, but it floated wide. And then there was that indelible passage: the blocked shot at one end, the near-miss header at the other. 3–3 is a hefty scoreline in a World Cup final. The match could have finished 5–5. Ultimately, the outcome was decided by a penalty shoot-out. In most cases, a penalty shoot-out feels like an unfair denouement. But somehow, tonight, it didn’t.

Pick a moment. I have mine: before Messi finally lifted the World Cup; before the organizers had bafflingly asked him to wear a black robe that obscured his Argentina uniform; before Mbappé had posed for photos with his Golden Boot award for the tournament’s highest goal scorer, half-proud, half-forlorn; before two French players failed to score their penalties; Messi himself had walked to the penalty spot. He had nearly won the World Cup at his last opportunity, and then had nearly witnessed that most fervent wish dissolve. Now he had a chance to lead his team to the trophy. Many players, faced with such a scenario, would have smashed the ball. But Messi ambled, stuttered, waited for the goalie to move, then rolled the ball past Lloris so slowly that he nearly had time to make a second attempt at a save. Such impudence, with so much at stake! I broke into a broad grin. Sports are meant to be fun. ♦

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