Argentina Went To Hell And Back To Win The World Cup
2:52 PM EST on December 18, 2022
The 2022 World Cup final between Argentina and France is the best soccer game that I've ever watched. Please remember that my adrenaline is still spiking as I write this statement, but also consider what these two teams just put each other—and everyone watching—through. Can anything really beat a World Cup final in which there is a comeback from 2-0 down, a combined five goals from the superstar duo of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, a seemingly infinite amount of heart-stopping near-goals, and the timely reappearance of Emiliano Martínez, Penalty Shootout King? This was the pinnacle of soccer, played on the biggest stage possible, with as much drama as could be crammed into 120-plus minutes.
All that being said, though, it probably should not have come down to the fireworks factory. France came out in the first half as if this were an international friendly with zero stakes, and Argentina punished Les Bleus for it. The Albiceleste was ruthless in the opening 45 minutes, pressing every time its players did not have the ball and flooding the French penalty box when they did. The re-insertion of Ángel Di María into the starting lineup, following his injury absence in the semifinal, allowed Argentina to have more than one creative attacker, and it allowed the side to stretch the French defense down its right flank.
It was, rightfully, Di María who drew the opening penalty foul for Argentina, baiting Ousmane Dembélé into pushing him in the back just enough to earn a whistle. Yes, this was a soft penalty call, but it was one; blame Dembélé, or blame his Barcelona teammate Jules Koundé for leaving him one-on-one against Argentina's most dangerous player in the first half.
Up to the spot stepped Messi, and there was no doubt that he would score in this World Cup final, something he failed to do in 2014.
There was still hope for France, but that hope appeared to be completely extinguished just 13 minutes after Messi's penalty. There was Argentina's No. 10 again, hitting a ridiculous outside the foot pass to Julián Álvarez, who then flicked the ball up to Alexis Mac Allister, with Di María charging wide open to his left. The Brighton man slotted the ball to his onrushing teammate, who chopped the ball off the field and over Hugo Lloris for what appeared to be an insurmountable 2-0 lead:
That's how the match stayed until the 80th minute, when France decided to wake up and roar back in a way that only really it could. The main reason for that was, of course, Mbappé. The 23-year-old, just two days away from his 24th birthday, sleepwalked through most of the opening 75 minutes, but with the final whistle approaching, Mbappé got to work. After Randal Kolo Muani drew a penalty from a clumsy and ill-advised Nicolás Otamendi challenge, Mbappé stepped up and nailed his first penalty, just barely getting by Martínez's outstretched glove to give France a sliver of hope:
That hope turned out to be well-founded: Just one minute later, there was the PSG star once again, doing a give-and-go with Marcus Thuram that left Mbappé open on the left side with a tricky angle. No matter: He one-touched a shot that just grazed Martínez's glove and went in. Just like that, after so much Argentinian dominance that it looked to make this final a boring affair, it was 2-2.
Argentina then looked on the ropes, as France's fresher players kept throwing attacks at Martínez's goal. Still, though, somehow, Argentina held off until the final whistle of regular time rang out in Lusail. Messi even had an absolute rocket of a shot as the game neared its end, requiring a massive Lloris save to keep France in this match:
The first half of that extra time passed with some chances, most notably from Lautaro Martínez and an extra touch, but mainly, both teams were exhausted and trying to survive. It felt like the next goal would be the final goal, and doubly so when it finally came.
In the 108th minute, it was Lautaro Martínez, he of so many missed chances this tournament, who once again found himself in a prime position to seal the game for his country. His run down the right opened up into a tight angle chance, which Lloris had perfectly covered. The only problem for Lloris, and for France, was that he didn't collect the ball, spilling it out to a charging Messi, who did enough with his weaker right foot to get it over the line and, it appeared, into the history books:
You already know that this wasn't the case, though, because Mbappé still existed. In the 116th minute, he once again found himself on the left side of the box, and with every centimeter he moved closer to the center, the more likely it became that he would rip a shot that would equalize the game. That's indirectly what happened. As he fired off a laser, it hit a jumping Gonzalo Montiel in the arm. Penalty for France, and Mbappé converted it for his hat trick and, more importantly the 3-3 score.
Lautaro Martínez had one last chance to end this in extra time, but his last-minute header went way wide, and on to penalties this match went. France won the coin toss and decided to kick first, and who else could it have been that nailed France's first penalty but Mbappé? It is risky to have a player take three penalties in one game, and doubly so when he goes the same direction on all three, but Mbappé is so good at striking the ball that even a correctly guessing Emi Martínez couldn't do much about the opening strike of the shootout.
Messi had his turn next, and he went for subterfuge and placement over power, essentially rolling the ball into the goal on Lloris's right, after faking the French goalie to his left. With both stars scoring their penalties, it was left to the supporting casts, and no one has been a better supporting actor than Martínez. As Kingsley Coman stepped up and shot to the goalie's right, the man nicknamed Dibu guessed correctly and blocked the powerful shot to give Argentina the upper hand in the shootout:
After Paulo Dybala, injured for so much of this tournament, converted his for Argentina's second, Real Madrid's Aurélien Tchouaméni put his wide to his left, missing the goal by some yards and handing the reins to Argentina. Leandro Paredes and Randal Kolo Muani traded scores after Tchouaméni's miss, leaving all the pressure in the world on the shoulders of 25-year-old Montiel. After conceding the penalty in extra time, the Sevilla right back more than made up for it, scoring the penalty that gave Argentina its first World Cup trophy since 1986 and, finally, gave Messi the World Cup he so desired.
Make no mistake: Despite starting with absolutely no juice, France gave Argentina everything it could handle in the back half of this World Cup final. Though Messi won the Golden Ball for the tournament's best player, Mbappé was right there with him, and especially on Sunday. With a few bounces of the ball in a different direction, it would be Mbappé celebrating back-to-back World Cup wins and Messi ruing yet another missed opportunity.
Instead Argentina showed its mental fortitude and didn't cave, after twice giving away a World Cup final lead. For the second time in this tournament, the Albiceleste won a penalty shootout on the strength of Martínez's saves and the entire team's ice-cold veins. If this wasn't the best soccer match of all time, it was at least the kind of World Cup final that the sport's biggest tournament deserves, and maybe one that was too good for the tournament it was attached to. For 120 minutes and change, France refused to quit and Argentina refused to collapse, and it was only by the slimmest of margins, in the most nerve-wracking of finishes, that the Argentines accomplished their mission in Qatar.