The GOAT debate is over… for now! Winners and losers as Messi’s Argentina overcome Mbappe’s France in greatest World Cup final ever
By Mark Doyle (GOAL.com)
Lionel Messi scored twice while Kylian Mbappe hit a hat-trick in a breath-takingly beautiful 3-3 draw in Lusail that was decided on penalties
Quite simply the greatest game in World Cup history. Maybe the greatest game ever played. Argentina’s shootout victory over France encapsulated everything we love about this sport.
Indeed, it felt fitting that Sergio Aguero was down there on the pitch celebrating with all of his former Argentina team-mates because this was ‘Drink it in’, ‘Non ci credo!’, ‘Football, bloody hell’ and ‘Dennis Bergkamp!’ all rolled into one.
It had everything you’d want from a final. And more. Even things you didn’t dare imagine you might see before kick-off. It didn’t just live up to its billing, it surpassed it. Spectacularly.
Lionel Messi scored twice and Kylian Mbappe hit a hat-trick in an insane 3-3 draw, but it wasn’t just about the biggest names. This glorious spectacle was testament to the talent and character of every single player that set foot on the field in Lusail.
There was a demonstration in the art of wing play for an hour from Angel Di Maria, a goalkeeping masterclass from Emiliano Martinez, and then some inspired substitutions from the two coaches, Didier Deschamps and Lionel Scaloni.
And that wasn’t the half of it.
GOAL runs through the winners and losers from a match that will never, ever be forgotten…
WINNER: Angel Di Maria
Messi wasn’t the only player in the Argentina squad with a compelling World Cup story arc stretching back to the agony of the 2014 finals in Brazil.
Angel Di Maria, remember, had suffered more than most, literally, having seen his campaign ended at the quarter-final stage by injury.
It was also feared that he’d miss this final too, having seen just eight minutes of game time in the knockout stages. Indeed, he spent the entirety of the semi-final win over Croatia sitting on the bench.
His inclusion in the starting line-up, then, caused anxiety among the Argentine press pack. They feared he might not be match fit, they suspected Scaloni would have been better served by employing a 3-5-2 formation.
They need not have worried. Di Maria was ready, willing and able to provoke panic every single time he picked up possession.
He did a number on Ousmane Dembele to win Argentina’s penalty, finished off a stunning counter-attack to make it 2-0 and even threw in a nutmeg on Aurelien Tchouameni for good measure.
Messi will understandably dominate the headlines, but he’ll be the first to acknowledge the role Di Maria played in winning him a Copa America and a World Cup.
Indeed, one wonders had the veteran been fit enough to finish the game, would France have even made it to extra time?…
LOSER: The GOAT debate
It’s finally over, right? Even Piers Morgan and the rest of the Cristiano Ronaldo’s supporters will surely now admit that Lionel Messi is the greatest of all time?…
Probably not, actually, but who cares anymore? Messi certainly won’t. If he ever did. His place at the pinnacle of his profession is now beyond dispute.
It has been for some time, of course, but there were always those annoying allegations that he’d never done it for Argentina.
Well, in the space of 18 months, he’s lifted the Copa America and the World Cup, and been the best player in both.
Not only that, he’s been involved in 21 World Cup goals in 26 appearances – both of those figures are records.
He’s also the only man to have scored in the group stage, last 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final of the same tournament. What’s more, he was man of the match in every single game in the knockout stage.
He’s 35, for crying out loud! This is super-human. This is Muhammad Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle. This is Michael Jordan in Game 6. This is Tiger Woods at Augusta. This is Rafael Nadal in Melbourne…
There is simply nothing left for Messi to achieve. Nothing left to say about him. He’s now immortal. He’s now the GOAT.
WINNER: Lionel Scaloni
Lionel Scaloni found it difficult to put into words what making the final meant to him. Imagine what he’s feeling now.
At 44 years of age, he’s just become the youngest manager to win the World Cup since his compatriot Cesar Luis Menotti (39), and he’s done it a year after leading Argentina to the Copa America – the nation’s first major international trophy at senior level for 28 years.
Having Messi helps, but let’s not forget how many coaches tried and failed to get the best out of the little genius. And during his peak years too.
What Scaloni has done, then, is truly remarkable. He inherited a group of players left devastated by their last-16 elimination by France at Russia 2018. On Sunday, he got the better of Didier Deschamps in an epic encounter through a combination of tactics and sheer force of will.
Penalties are obviously a lottery but Scaloni, just as he did against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, revived his side with some crucial substitutions (particularly the introduction of Leandro Paredes) that saw the momentum shift back in Argentina’s favour.
The camaraderie he has instilled in this side is truly remarkable. He has achieved that all-to-rare feat of creating a club spirit in an international set-up.
He was by no means a popular appointment four years ago; now, though, he’s the second-most popular Lionel in Argentina!
LOSER: Ousmane Dembele
Gary Neville obviously disagrees, but it’s hard not to feel at least some sympathy for Ousmane Dembele.
He arrived in Qatar brimming with belief thanks to a welcome renaissance at Barcelona. It was even thought that he might prove to be one of the players of the tournament, given most opposition sides would likely focus on the threat posed by France’s other flying winger…
Dembele, though, underwhelmed throughout, managing just two assists in seven outings. The final proved particularly painful. Illness or injury may have played a part, but Dembele was dreadful.
He touched the ball just 17 times, entered the Argentine third just once and gifted Messi the opener from the penalty spot after clumsily bundling over Di Maria in the area, after being fooled by his fellow winger on the touchline.
His substitution on the 41st minute was manager Didier Deschamps showing him some mercy.
Dembele is still only 25, of course. There is still time for him to realise his undoubted world-class potential, but it may take him more time to recover from the mental scars from this tournament than the numerous injuries he suffered over the years.
Had it not been for the heroics of superstars such as Messi and Mbappe, Alexis Mac Allister would have been a legitimate contender for Man of the Match.
He worked tirelessly in midfield and consistently caused problems when he drifted into space in between the lines, as so thrillingly demonstrated by his assist for Di Maria’s goal.
In short, Mac Allister was immense, just as he has been throughout this tournament.
The only bad news from a Brighton perspective is that they’re going to find it very difficult to hold on to Mac Allister.
On the plus side, the offers they receive should be worthy of one of the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup.
WINNER: Kylian Mbappe
How long will Lionel Messi be considered the GOAT? That may depend on Kylian Mbappe.
The kid is ridiculous. France were dreadful here for more than 70 minutes. They didn’t even manage a shot in the first half – an historically bad showing in a final. Messi & Co. looked set to run away with the game.
However, France’s own magical No.10 only needed just over 90 seconds to turn this final on its head, first with a coolly taken penalty, and then with the most fantastic of first-time finishes.
Even after Messi scored what looked like the winner, Mbappe refused to go away, showing utter contempt for the fairy-tale narrative by winning and converting yet another spot-kick, earning himself the Golden Boot in the process.
He proved his mettle once again in the shootout and underlined why he looks destined to break every single World Cup record.
Mbappe has now got more goals in the final (four) than anyone else in history. At 23 years of age, he’s already a tournament legend – and the truly thrilling thing for us neutrals is, his best might yet be to come!
LOSER: Nicolas Otamendi
Nicolas Otamendi had been utterly outstanding for Argentina in this tournament, their best defender by some distance. Indeed, he fully deserved the massive roar he received from the crowd when he collected his medal.
However, he must have felt like the luckiest man in Lusail after the penalty shootout, as it was he who had gifted France a route back into the game by first losing Randal Kolo Muani, and then bundling him over in the area.
Argentina completely lost their composure for 20 minutes after that foul. Had it not been for Scaloni, they wouldn’t have regained it.
WINNER: Emiliano Martinez
Emiliano Martinez is a bit crazy, as he underlined with his post-match antics. But there is a method to his madness.
Martinez was absolutely integral to Argentina’s success. He didn’t just psyche out Kingsley Coman and Aurelien Tchouameni in the shootout, he was the reason the game went all the way to penalties, after producing the greatest save you’ll ever see with an outstretched boot from Randal Kolo Muani’s low strike right at the end of extra-time.
Martinez, then, might not be particularly likeable. His gamesmanship during the shootout and subsequent goading of Mbappe were both undignified and unnecessary.
However, as we’ve outlined before, Martinez personifies the spirit of self-sacrifice that has propelled this Argentina team to glory.
It was just, then, to see him receive an individual accolade (Goalkeeper of the Tournament) for playing such a key role in a collective triumph.
LOSER: The penalty-takers
If ever there was a game that nobody deserved to lose, this was it. So, to see it decided by missed penalties from two young men who had been integral to France’s two comebacks was heartbreaking.
Kingsley Coman tormented the previously untroubled Argentine backline after coming on, while Aurelien Tchouameni helped wrestle back control of the midfield for the final 20 minutes of normal time.
So, while they will undoubtedly be devastated by their squandered spot-kicks, one hopes that they will, in time, look back on their contribution to this classic with nothing but pride.
WINNER: South American football
As soon as France set up a final showdown with Argentina, Mbappe’s infamous quotes on the strength of South American football resurfaced online.
Emiliano Martinez was even asked about the Frenchman’s claim that Brazil and Argentina don’t play as many “high-level matches” as European nations during his pre-match press conference.
“He doesn’t know enough about football,” the goalkeeper told reporters. “He never played in South America. When you don’t have this experience, it may be better not to talk about it. But it doesn’t matter. We are a great team, recognised as such.”
They certainly will be now, but there’s no denying that there was a modicum of truth in Mbappe’s claim.
The creation of the Nations League has been viewed as a negative by the likes of Brazil and Argentina because it’s denied them opportunities to play friendlies against European sides.
The South American game, then, needed this show of strength, and a first World Cup triumph since 2002, to remind the world why remains a footballing force.