16 Conclusions on the World Cup final: Messi magnificence, Mbappe majesty, Martinez mind games

Matt Stead
Lionel Messi celebrates with the World Cup trophy

The 2022 World Cup final was spectacular. Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe surpassed the hype, Angel Di Maria shone and Argentina eventually put France down.


1) What a f**king game.


2) The champion. The Golden Ball winner with six goals. A scorer in every knockout tie. The Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s best player.

“We went to the World Youth Cup in 2005 and came back talking about a player who would be better than Maradona. He’d just turned 18,” Carlos Mac Allister, father of world champion midfielder Alexis and among the billions to have realised at some point that “Messi’s the best of all time,” told The Guardian in a recent interview.

It was 17 years ago in the Netherlands when Lionel Messi started to properly attract those comparisons which would define and frame his stunning career. ‘His rip-roaring form in Holland was arguably the most individually influential since ‘Dieguito’ left fans gasping for air at Japan 1979,’ reads the official FIFA line, frozen in time as a sort of shrine to the genesis of unimaginable brilliance.

Messi always seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of Diego Maradona. But the heartbreak of 2014 made fate feel futile. Only one of La Albiceleste’s two pillars would be able to drag their country to World Cup glory. Only one of La Albiceleste’s two giants would be able to single-handedly end decades of hurt and disappointment. Only one of La Albiceleste’s two icons would complete their preordained journey to immortality without any corners being cut.

A teenaged Messi marked himself out as a budding genius with goals against Egypt, Colombia, Spain and Brazil at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship. He then scored twice in the final to beat Nigeria, crown three weeks of dominance and match Maradona’s total tally in the same competition 26 years earlier.

The champion. The scorer of seven goals – albeit without the Golden Boot – including one in every knockout tie. The Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s best player. Nearly two decades on from winning his first trophy representing Argentina, Messi bowed out with his last.

Little has changed. Time is a flat circle and time will remember Messi as the absolute greatest to ever do it.


3) Kylian Mbappe did make some compelling counter-arguments. When matches of such magnitude are reduced to a contest between two sublime players who are otherwise unlikely to share the same 30-yard radius at any point, the result is invariably a let down. It is a crass, laborious and unimaginative trope which disrespects the many tens of hundreds involved, from fellow squad members to managers, coaches and other staff who put work into preparation, scouting and training. The World Cup final does not need to be sexed up with a forced ‘versus’ storyline.

But Messi and Mbappe did at least hold up their end of that risible bargain. The latter raged against the narrative machine with a record-shattering hat-trick, becoming the all-time top scorer in World Cup finals, leapfrogging eight players in the overall tournament goal list to sit behind just five others at 23, and underlining his excellence as a master of moments. He barely registered as a footnote in the first 79 minutes of this game, then dominated the remaining 40 or so. It was breathtaking defiance to individually haul France back towards the brink of history.

Mbappe did all he could. The technical prowess of his second goal was matched by the inconceivable fortitude needed to convert a tide-turning penalty with 10 minutes remaining at 2-0, an equalising spot-kick in the most pressurised situation imaginable at 3-2 down in a World Cup final in the 28th minute of extra-time, and then to score again from 12 yards at the start of the subsequent shoot-out. Even in defeat, it was one of the single most extraordinary performances in the sport’s history, given the context.


4) The game itself was the absolute finest example of that footballing unicorn: a match capable of pulling the neutral in so deep that they become consumed by the fabric of it all; a contest so captivating that, even watching with no horse in the race, it is impossible not to get lost in the moment.

There was no need to force a bias or pick a favourite. It is quite something to find yourself willing one team on to score before suddenly switching fluid allegiances as the other storms up the opposite end of the pitch. Screaming ‘go on’ as a player whose club team you’d only be guessing at skips through on goal. Reacting with genuine distress at a missed chance for a team whose matches you only watch a handful of times every couple of years. Mouth agape and head in hands at the sheer ludicrousness at what was unfolding. History being made in the present. There is nothing quite like it.

The level of investment gradually rose to the point that France and Argentina supporters had unknowingly adopted millions of fans each, even if only in the immediate term. Wearing the cloak of impartiality did nothing by the time it went to penalties as the existential crisis gripped even the most objective spectators.

Some games stick permanently in the mind but they are almost always subconsciously decided through partisanship. This was a uniquely remarkable collective memory. Rarely is the feverish build-up matched on this sort of distinctive stage. Never is it surpassed – until now.


5) So it came to this. All the anticipation, the predictions, the previews, the excitement, the suspense. The incessant talk of Messi v Mbappe and the pitching of this as their final: two generational ships passing in the international night. The chance for either France or Argentina to add that coveted third gold star to their famous shirts, for these players to write their names into the annals of history.

The date for the World Cup final was confirmed as far back as March 2015, something green-lit by Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini; a great deal has changed since, and in FIFA terms at least, barely any of it for the better. But this was the Qatari celebration more than a decade in the making, the ultimate show for which football sold its soul, a glittering occasion with the talent to match.

A roar met the shrill of Szymon Marciniak’s opening whistle. Antoine Griezmann kicked off, playing the ball back to Aurelien Tchouameni. The France midfielder promptly hammered it out of play for a throw-in about midway into Argentina’s half.

Welcome to, theoretically, the single greatest game this sport has to offer – which is simultaneously not all that different from a windy Sunday League kickabout.


6) That general vibe was exacerbated within the first couple of minutes. Rodrigo De Paul pushed Adrien Rabiot over twice, Cristian Romero stuck an elbow into club teammate Hugo Lloris’ ribs, Olivier Giroud nearly caused a penalty area pile-up with an apparent shove and Dayot Upamecano laid his forearm across Messi’s face to gain an advantage he barely needed in a hilariously mismatched aerial battle.

“Let him know you’re there,” said the gleeful co-commentator as Upamecano rushed to the halfway line for the opportunity to clamber over Messi and win a header.

Even watching from more than 4,000 miles away, it was not difficult to imagine De Paul or Romero bellowing to their teammates that France ‘don’t fancy this, boys,’ nor was it tough to envisage Upamecano imploring Les Bleus to get ‘straight in to these’. It was beautifully rudimentary, considering the gilded circumstances.


7) France would have benefited from replicating the crude, press-evading pragmatism they displayed at kick-off a few more times in the first half. Hindsight might actually do their start to this game a favour; in real time it was an atrocious, clumsy stumble out of the blocks. Argentina’s intensity off the ball overwhelmed them.

Argentina still needed quality on the ball to make that advantage count and while it was offered in abundance by most in white and sky blue, Angel Di Maria was imperious. Restoring him to the starting line-up was a risk which was rewarded with an incredible performance.

It was Di Maria’s clever footwork which won a penalty, nutmegged Jules Kounde, tormented Ousmane Dembele and forced the French forward’s first-half substitution. It was Di Maria’s counter-attacking potency and finishing which doubled Argentina’s lead. It was his last game in his greatest role – as perhaps Messi’s best ever foil – and a spectacular way to end.

Some may remember the 34-year-old as a “complete fanny” at Man Utd but a fairer evaluation of Di Maria’s career shows a player who has won 30 trophies in three different countries and at international level, whose big-game pedigree is rivalled by precious few: the scorer of the only goal in an Olympic gold medal match; the scorer of the only goal in a Copa America final; a Champions League final man of the match; a goal and an assist in two separate Copa del Rey Clasico final wins; and a scorer in a World Cup final.

After missing the 2014 final defeat through injury, this was arguably the completion of Di Maria’s redemption arc and story even more so than it was for Messi. He was phenomenal.


8) That second Argentina goal was a work of art. The 25-pass move which culminated in Esteban Cambiasso’s strike against Serbia at the 2006 World Cup is often held as their – or even the – ultimate team effort. This was sharper, more clinical, something to rival the famous Carlos Alberto strike which coincidentally sealed Brazil’s third trophy in 1970.

As is the case with most everything to do with the sport, this was considerably faster than its predecessor of more than five decades before. Touches were treated as more of a premium commodity: Nahuel Molina simultaneously controlled a high ball with a pass to Alexis Mac Allister, who clipped the ball around the corner to Messi. Argentina’s captain poked it out to Julian Alvarez and his through ball set Mac Allister free with only Kounde between him and Di Maria. The final delivery was sumptuous, laid perfectly into Di Maria’s path but just out of Hugo Lloris’s reach.

Molina, Alvarez and Di Maria had one touch. Mac Allister had two but at different moments. In the 13 seconds from winning possession to scoring, only Messi took more than a single touch in the move – and even then it was the pass he played instantly after controlling the ball which unlocked France. There has never been a better or more decisive goal scored in a World Cup final.


9) The role of Alvarez should not be overlooked. It was his block on Upamecano’s attempted long pass which fell to Molina and his ludicrous vigour that so unsettled France. The Manchester City forward did not stop running and Tchouameni is not the only player who will have a renewed fondness for time, space, the opportunity to breathe and other such comforts.

Not that Alvarez is a mere workhorse. Di Maria deserves the plaudits for winning the penalty and Messi dispatched it with unerring belief, but that move almost broke down after Mac Allister overhit his pass. Alvarez, five yards from the Brighton midfielder, was already sprinting with a view to making a run beyond Raphael Varane when the ball was clipped up to him. The speed of thought to adjust and reach it was astonishing enough but to be able to cushion and divert it into the path of the unmarked Di Maria required wonderful ability.


10) Di Maria, of course, did the rest. His performatively long look up at the area after controlling the ball, as if he was shaping to cross to all of Argentina’s colossal strikers, was bought at a premium by Dembele, who proceeded to clean up his mess with a piss-soaked mop by clipping Di Maria’s heel in the area.

Dembele had a career-definingly dreadful game. His first touch was to miscontrol a simple ball and put it out for a throw-in. Eight of his 11 passes were accurate. Di Maria spun him again within a minute of the opening goal, like a child begging to be shown a basic magic trick again but falling for it in the exact same way. Messi then strolled past him soon after when Dembele inexplicably moved central – out of both position and his depth. His 40th-minute removal was born of sympathy and compassion as much as anything else.


11) That Didier Deschamps substitution was striking. Dembele and the ineffective Olivier Giroud were dragged off shortly before half-time in an attempt to stem the bleed at a point when France looked incapable of completing even The Basics.

“We utterly failed to show up in the first half,” Deschamps told French television at the break. “We had neither the correct attitude nor the correct response. They played the first half as if it was the World Cup final, we did not.”

Randal Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram helped redress that balance, stretching the defence and holding the ball up. Those changes were a matter of inches from being recognised as perhaps the most inspired ever in football management. The former won a penalty (that’s what you get for playing Nicolas Otamendi in a World Cup final). The latter assisted Mbappe’s first equaliser. They matched Argentina’s intensity levels and lifted France’s.

Had Kolo Muani scored either of those last-gasp chances – failing to connect with a header from Mbappe’s cross and firing at Emi Martinez’s feet when Ibrahima Konate played him through – Deschamps would likely be recognised as a coaching genius. As it was, Kolo Muani netted in vain during the shoot-out and Thuram was booked for diving, but the bold, brave double substitution helped rescue this final as a bout, if not a successful defence for France.


12) The introduction of Kingsley Coman was also influential as the winger excelled in one-v-one situations, most often against Marcos Acuna or Nicolas Tagliafico. It was Coman who actually started the move for the second goal, dispossessing Messi in the build-up.

Deschamps’ proactive management did not stop there. Eduardo Camavinga and Youssouf Fofana came on to help establish midfield control. Konate was another bright change for the tired Varane. Taking Giroud, Griezmann, Dembele, Theo Hernandez, Rabiot and Kounde off in a World Cup final takes mettle and it almost worked perfectly.

Lionel Scaloni’s first substitution was a mistake; taking Di Maria off at that stage was warranted but the introduction of a second left-back in Acuna gave France an area to attack at a point they looked lost. By the time the Argentina manager brought Leandro Paredes on, the scores were level but that was crucial in helping find a foothold again.

“I think the first half was all ours, but one goal can change everything,” said Scaloni, after the only game Argentina lost at this tournament. Their opening defeat to Saudi Arabia was a sobering reminder that tactics are vital but sometimes players break free from the confines of those whiteboards, unaccountable shit happens, momentum and confidence shifts and games transform based on moments.

That happened against Saudi Arabia, when they led before suddenly conceding twice in five minutes. Then against the Netherlands, when they squandered double the advantage in 18 minutes. Even against Australia they were cruising until being knocked slightly off course before having to scrap through. In the final, Mbappe turned everything on its head in 97 scarcely believable seconds.

Argentina were the better team for the vast majority of the final and this tournament. Scaloni made one mistake and almost paid the biggest possible price. Deschamps has been one of the best dynamic coaches in terms of accepting when something is not working and trying to fix it. Both managers should be proud of their input. Argentina were deserved winners but as Martinez said after the game: “It is our destiny to suffer.” They will wear the battle scars from that third star with immense satisfaction.


13) It had to be Martinez delivering that line. Until 18 months ago, the keeper had made more appearances for Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday,  Rotherham United and Reading than Argentina. His career breakthrough came because Neal Maupay – a Frenchman born to an Argentine mother – jumped into Bernd Leno and knackered his knee during lockdown.

More than eight years separated his first and second international call-ups – and he didn’t make his debut on either of them. That eventually came in June 2021, since which he has won the World Cup, the Copa America and the CONMEBOL–UEFA Cup of Champions, winning the Golden Glove at the first two tournaments and keeping a clean sheet in the third.

The question is almost always who you would pick to take a high-stakes penalty, but the caveat ought to be whether Martinez is in net or not. If it is the 30-year-old standing at the other end of the area, wide-eyed, ready to send you on an extra trip to collect the ball he has just thrown away and happy to dance in the middle of a World Cup final shoot-out, there is little point choosing anyone – save, on this evidence, Mbappe.

Some people think penalties are their ally. They, Lloris among them, merely adopted the art; Martinez was born in it, moulded by it. And please let the picture of him using the Golden Glove trophy as a makeshift penis be the enduring image of this World Cup, rather than the vomit-inducing, indulgent sportswashing grand finale that was draping a bisht around the shoulders of Messi for the team celebration. Iker Casillas presenting the trophy before kick-off was one last boot in the LGBTQ teeth, too. Might as well use David Beckham next time and get your money’s worth.


14) Arguably Martinez’s finest moment came before those decisive and dramatic kicks. That save from Kolo Muani was stunning, advancing off his line rapidly to close the angle before blocking the effort with his feet.

The last five minutes or so of second-half extra-time were frankly ridiculous. Kolo Muani should have scored from Mbappe’s cross and then Konate’s chipped pass. Directly from that second attack, Argentina broke and Messi crossed for Lautaro Martinez to stick an unmarked header well wide. Konate showed inhumane levels of calm to later catch Martinez with an offside trap as by far the deepest France defender.

It was all sparked by Mbappe’s penalty – the absolute minerals on the man – and the 23-year-old was approaching irrepressible levels by the end. The last pre-shootout act of the game was Mbappe taking on Paredes and Romero in roughly the same area Di Maria had victimised Dembele seemingly weeks before. He burst into the area with quite understandably no intention whatsoever of passing to a teammate, only for Enzo Fernandez to finally show the requisite courage to tackle him.

Fernandez, later named the Young Player of this World Cup, made 10 tackles all game when no other player made more than four for either side. That was the sort of intervention Mbappe necessitated by that stage, despite having only had France’s first shot of the game in the 71st minute. But the end itself was absurd, like the entire final condensed into a smooth highlights package.


15) Szymon Marciniak was exceptional. In a tournament rife with refereeing complaints, he maintained consummate control of the game, allowed it to flow in a natural manner instead of forcing it and kept high-running emotions in check. The call on Thuram’s dive was masterful: the sort of thing that is easy to spot on a replay but which the Polish official spotted and dealt with immediately. It won’t get nearly as much attention as a bad performance would have but Marciniak was as close to flawless as possible.


16) And finally, a moment for our fallen friends: the many thousand words lost to the arts of the rewrite and prewrite. Quite frankly, a final like that makes it all worth it. What a fucking game.