A World Cup in chaos has produced a final for the ages: Argentina versus France
AL KHOR, Qatar – The 2022 World Cup began amid controversy and chaos. It started here at Al Bayt Stadium with a night all about Qatar and then quickly turned on its head. It brought Argentina to the abyss in less than 48 hours and soon overthrew Belgium and Germany. It went on to the semi-finals with Morocco and Croatia – and there it ended at the feet of two giants on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Here chaos gave way to order.
And this is where cute, inspirational underdog stories gave way to a clash of titans.
It will be Argentina vs France, Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappé after the French defeated Morocco on Wednesday. It will be a dreamy finale in a futuristic city built out of thin air in a cavernous stadium rising out of the desert. It all still feels a little weird and convulsive, a little uncomfortable and morally complicated, but my goodness, it’s going to be brimming with lush narratives. It seems almost incapable of disappointing.
It will be a battle of continents, vibrations and generations. Either a torch is passed, by a GOAT to the first potential challenger to his throne; or the GOAT is baptized. Mbappé, who has achieved more before the age of 24 than perhaps anyone since Pelé, is on track to “all the records”, as French team-mates and coaches have said, but Argentina can put them on hold.
The 23-year-old French prince failed to score in Wednesday’s semifinals, but in seconds he showed why he is so feared. Without the ball, he sped past Moroccan defenders. He picked it up too, pushed it past them, and turned on his turbo jets. He even channeled Messi’s magical dribbles to set up France’s second goal.
For all the inevitable talk about individuals, about arguably the two most talented football players in the world, this will be team against team, unit against unit, sharp young coach against sharp world champion coach.
“There’s not only Messi in this team, eh,” said French striker Olivier Giroud on Wednesday. “They have great players who also work for the team.”
When those two teams met in the round of 16 four years ago, it was was only Messi – which is of course an exaggeration, but there was an Argentine mess around him. The French remember this game; Head coach Didier Deschamps recalls how surprisingly Messi played something of a striker; Giroud recalls how N’Golo Kanté, the France midfielder, was “all game”. [Messi’s] the back.”
But “four years ago it was different, of course,” said Deschamps. Four years later, Messi will be rejuvenated and put in a more appropriate role.
“Messi has been in brilliant form since the start of the tournament,” said Deschamps.
“Every team with Messi in it is a completely different thing,” said French attacker Antoine Griezmann, who has followed Argentina along with his teammates throughout the tournament.
“I mean, he’s an incredible player,” said Giroud. “But we’re not letting him have the best night he can have. We want to win this game, we want to win another World Cup. And we will try everything to stop him.”
And while they don’t have Kante, Paul Pogba, or a host of injury-hit regulars from 2018, they have a near-ideal mix of kids and vets. They have Aurelien Tchouameni, a majestic, multi-talented midfielder who is, in a sense, playing in Kante’s place. And they have the 2018 winners to guide him and the other World Cup rookies.
Griezmann recalls crying four years ago after beating Belgium in the semifinals. “And I think I’m more focused now,” he said on Wednesday after this semi-final. “I’m already concentrating on the final on Sunday. I try to keep my feet on the ground.”
Unfortunately, what they could also have is a spreading virus. Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Umpemecano, regulars in midfield and defence, respectively, missed the game against Morocco while struggling with flu-like symptoms. Deschamps hinted that Kingsley Coman was also uneasy.
“We’re taking every precaution, we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t spread,” he said. Rabiot stayed behind at the team hotel instead of traveling to Wednesday’s game. “But viruses are of course contagious,” he added.
However, France has enough depth to survive an eruption. Argentina also has a lot. Together they have all the ingredients to put together a finale to last forever, the most memorable of the 21st century.
The tournament as a whole was also memorable. The controversy is not and will not go away; it will spoil the legacy of event. But the Soccer, in a vacuum, inspired. It presented drama at every stage; it offered Saudi Arabia and Iran, Japan and Costa Rica, Tunisia and South Korea and Australia. Trouble galore.
Now it will end as always, with either Argentina or France, one of the six nations that have won the tournament twice. It will end with a gigantic crowd and history, either a title for Messi or a second consecutive title for France, who became the first consecutive champions since Pelé’s Brazil in 1962. It will be wonderfully complex and incredibly magnificent, yet simple at the same time.
“Both teams are playing against a better team than in the tournament so far,” said Deschamps. “It will be up to the key players to make a difference. Maybe a team that makes fewer mistakes. … Whoever succeeds, wins the match.”