Thursday, February 29, 2024

Argentina – Campeon del Mundo

The World Cup is over. Argentina won it. And it was, all in all, a remarkable final.

Sometimes I think there’s an idea that a game has to be brilliant for 90 minutes, from first whistle to last, to be worthy of the title of a ‘great game’, but that’s really not how football works. The way it works is that a lot of the time it is ordinary, mundane, perhaps even verging on tedious – but then something happens which elevates our experience.

Yesterday’s game was exactly that. Argentina were deservedly 2-0 ahead. A first half penalty from Lionel Messi and then a superb team move which saw Angel di Maria double the lead. France had been terrible, so much so a double substitution before half-time saw Dembele and Giroud withdrawn – the ignominy of that as a player must be tough, but in truth Didier Deschamps could justifiably have taken off 9 or 10 if he’d had the ability to so. They were a bit better in the second half, but as the clock reached the 80th minute, they never looked like threatening the Argentina goal or Messi’s World Cup dream.

What’s so amazing and so thrilling about football is the way a game can just take a sharp turn in an unexpected way. A long ball over the top of the defence should have caused no danger, but instead of just clearing it first time, Nicolas Otamendi – the Argentine Mustafi – dillied and dallied, and France had a penalty. Kylian Mbappe stepped up and although Emi Martinez went the right way, it was 2-1. Mbappe’s sensational volley a minute later flew beyond the keeper and it was 2-2, and the game hadn’t taken a sharp turn as a complete flip upside down and back to front.

Messi’s rocket of a shot might have won it in injury time but Lloris made a good save, and we went into extra-time. I thought France would do it. Losing a 2-0 lead in the last 10 minutes of a final can suck the energy out of the most willing legs, but it looked as if the fairytale had been written when Messi made it 3-2, thanks to a defender’s arse playing a man onside.

Surely this was it. This was the story that so many would have written. The greatest player of them all, seeing his final chance to win the World Cup almost go up in smoke, but for him to win it close to the death. The fairytale. Except fairytales are actually awful. Full of horrible people and horrible monsters and children who get eaten by witches and wolves in all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. France being awarded their second penalty after a handball in the box must have been Grimm for Messi, and I’m sure he knew that his PSG teammate Mbappe wasn’t going to miss.

3-3, Mbappe with a hat-trick, and then right at the death an incredible sequence when France had a chance to win it but Martinez made an incredible save – after which the ball went up the other end and Lautaro Martinez had an incredible chance to win it but duffed his header wide. Breathless stuff.

So, to penalties. Mbappe first, his third spot-kick of the game. Emphatic, like his talent. 1-0. Messi responds, none of this waiting around for the 5th penalty to take the glory nonsense. A captain who leads by example. And what a penalty. To do what he did in these circumstances, with that much pressure on him, just incredible. The weight of a nation on top everything that must have been churning around inside him, and he rolls it down the middle as Lloris dived out of the way.

We know what happened next. Heartbreak for the men who missed, glory for the ones who kept their nerve on the biggest stage, and victory for Argentina: Campeon del Mundo.

Just an astonishing game of football. The perfect example of why everyone wants the World Cup because regardless of how much scrutiny is applied, regardless of any criticism ongoing or otherwise, you are sucked in by the beautiful game until that’s all that matters. I remember my own formative World Cup experiences, 1978 and 1982 in particular, and I think of all the boys and girls that watched their first final yesterday and how much those memories will be indelibly etched on the football slate in their minds.

I know any talk of the romance of Messi lifting the World Cup can be countered with all kinds of rebuttals, but he is the best player I have ever seen, and I’m happy for him. He is no ordinary footballer, and while domestically he has won it all, the international stage hasn’t always been easy for him. Not least because his entire career in an Argentina shirt has been in parallel to the man who came before him, who inspired their last World Cup win.

As a fan of the game, to have lived through separate eras where two diminutive left-footed geniuses have emerged from the same nation, each with their own claim to the title of best ever, is really something special. Messi, like Maradona before him, elevates every team he plays in, but similarly, the supporting cast were vital too. What a tournament Alexis Mac Allister has had, for example. The Brighton man is a World Cup winner. So too former Gunner Emi Martinez, who I know divides opinion for reasons I fully understand, but imagine if Neal Maupay hadn’t injured Bernd Leno that fateful day. I don’t think he’d be where he is now. Football writes scripts that would be rejected by Hollywood for being too unrealistic.

I don’t think today is the day for a reflection the tournament as a whole, so all I can do is congratulate both teams for the best final I can remember. Commiserations to France, who came so close to doing something remarkable themselves – retaining the World Cup. In the end, the tears were theirs, the joy was Argentina’s, and the spotlight was well and truly on Lionel Messi (once Gianni Infantino, the limelight hogging sociopath, got the hell out of the way).

For more on the final and the World Cup in general, James and I recorded the Arsecast Extra yesterday evening, it’s ready for you below, or in your favourite podcasting app right now.

We’ll have a final World Cup show on Patreon later today. For now, have a good one.


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