Why this operational Fifa World Cup final was the greatest ever

Mark Reason is a sports columnist for stuff.

OPINIONS: Every four years, the world walks to the final of the World Cup full of joyful hope. Two hours later, the world walks away from a game strangled by the usual fear, nothing much left of a deflated day but the ashes of disappointment. Then on a December afternoon in 2022, Argentina and France turned up. This wasn’t a football match. This was opera.

We had the overture. Two of the better national anthems in the world summoned the usual optimism. “Oíd el ruido de rotas cadenas…Coronados de gloria vivamos. O juremos con gloria morir! (Hear the noise of broken chains … crowned with glory let us live. Or let us swear with glory to die!),” sang Argentina. “Le jour de gloire est arrivé (the day of glory has arrived),” chimed the French.

Lands of hope and glory, we have heard these overtures before, and then hardly a shot has been fired. But as we moved into the first act, this World Cup final had a different tempo. The French were largely a supporting cast. Les miserables were sick, drained by a virus. The Argentinian players rioted in the streets.

Le pauvre Ousmane Dembele, hapless and humiliated when replaced before the half was even finished, was beaten by Angel Di Maria. Foolishly he scrambled after the winger and came close enough to convince the referee that an atrocity had been committed in the penalty area. Argentina were the apparent victims of a record number of such atrocities at this World Cup. Remember the one against Poland when the goalie’s glove brushed the face of Lionel Messi. Sacrilege.

And so it was again. Another day in the life of Lionel Messi, another penalty. What chance did Hugo Lloris, the French keeper have. But then he was facing a man who may seem small, but is a giant of the game. Just look at the 30-metre mural of Messi on the tower block in Rosario. Messi owned Lloris. A perfect initial aria. 1-0 Argentina.

The opening act was building to its crescendo. The beautiful game got its beautiful goal in its beautiful final. Maybe it did not quite rival the Carlos Alberto goal of 1970, but then Brazil had five (club) number 10s in the team, including Pele.

Argentina's Lionel Messi, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and Cristian Romero, from right, sing the national anthem ahead of the World Cup final against France.

Martin Meissner/AP

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and Cristian Romero, from right, sing the national anthem ahead of the World Cup final against France.

That goal went through so many players and so many rhythms. It had the multiple passing, it had Clodoaldo’s mesmeric dribble past four Italian midfielders, it had Jairzinho’s burst of pace, it had Pele stopping time and it had Alberto’s finish of powerful athletic beauty.

Argentina’s goal was one touch harmony. After Dayot Upamecano’s hurried hoof, Nahuel Molina guided a volleyed pass back to Alexis Mac Allister who instantly passed on to Messi. The Messianic one is allowed two touches, one to lure the center backs to him, the second a flick on to Julian Alvarez. He passed on to McAllister, my man of the match, who had outran Aurelien Tchouameni before the brilliant midfielder passed instantly across for Di Maria to finish. A song of songs that brought Di Maria to tears and France to his knees.

The second act was the slower movement, a lull after halftime, as Argentina passed the ball around and France searched for its soul. Ecstasy and lamentations. France’s president sat in the stands, but this was a leaderless nation. The reflective lull before the musical storm.

The third act began and suddenly the chorus burst into song. Randal Kolo Muani, who had come on for an Olivier Giroud so furious that one of his hair follicles was rumored to have moved out of place, won a penalty. A minute later Kingsley Coman nicked the ball off Messi and Marcus Thuram lofted a pass into the area. France’s supporting cast had found their voice.

But in opera there is always a tenor superstar to steal the limelight. Kylian Mbappe’s penalty was good, but his volley was otherworldly. Why didn’t he take a touch, wondered some players who were great in their own era. Answer; because he’s not from your world. 2-2 Incroyable.

Extra time and the fourth act was under way. Messi, the world’s great soprano, hits the heights again. Teammates Enzo Fernandez and Laturo Martinez prepare the stage. The ball rebounds off Lloris and Messi surprises the world by using his right leg to shin the ball into the goal.

France are surely down and out this time. Raphael Varane is so shattered he has crawled off the pitch and then been supported up the touchline. But strangely Argentina doubted themselves just as they did against Australia and the Netherlands. They begin to defend. Maybe Les Bleus won’t have to sing the blues after all.

Mbappe, the star of the late, late show, crashes another shot and this one hits the arm of a defender. Mbappe wouldn’t normally take the penalty. That’s the job of Antoine Griezmann. But Mbappe, having been silent for so long, is now in full voice. It’s a hat trick and 3-3.

The cymbals are crashing. We are heading for a crazy finale. A lofted ball puts Muane through as Argentina wane. He hits it well and to the left of Emil Martinez, but in a moment of divine anticipation, the keeper telescopes his left leg and somehow deflects the ball.

Argentina rush back up the pitch. A cross, a fine cross, but Lauturo Martinez corkscrews himself into the wrong space, and shoulders the ball wide. Now Mbappe drives into the Argentine area. One defender shies away, then another, terrified of conceding a penalty, Mbappe prepares to strike for ‘gloire’, but the ball is nudged away off his toe.

And so it ends. For now. 3-3 But there is one more act. The asylum of the shootout. For only the third time in World Cup history the final has gone to penalties. Mbappe and Messi both score. Messi rolls the ball into the goal in slow motion as if he is down the local park and doesn’t want to disturb the flower bed behind the makeshift goal.

France's Kylian Mbappe, right, scores his side's second goal in the final.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

France’s Kylian Mbappe, right, scores his side’s second goal in the final.

Then the clown, el payaso, sneaks back onto the stage. Even one of his own, Pablo Zabaleta, calls keeper Martinez “a bit crazy”. The words pour out of Martinez’s mouth. Coman is spooked and his penalty is saved. Tchouameni is the next taker for France. Martinez runs off with the ball, pursued by ref, and then throws it into the next door garden. Is it any wonder that Tchouameni misses.

Montiel comes onto the stage, the man whose arm had conceded the penalty that enabled Mbappe to equalize. What redemption. He scores and the voices of Argentina bring the curtain down with one final chorus.

“No te lo puedo explicar

porque no vas a entender

las finales que perdimos, cuantos años las lloré.”

Argentina players celebrate the fourth and winning penalty by Gonzalo Montiel.

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Argentina players celebrate the fourth and winning penalty by Gonzalo Montiel.

It’s the World Cup song of Diego and Lionel, Muchachos, Ahora Nos Volvimos A Ilusionar, created by a 62-year-old musician and a 30-year-old teacher.

“I can’t explain it to you,

Because you won’t understand

The finals we lost, how many years I cried for them.”

They are still crying out there, but these are tears of joy.

“Y al Diego, desde el cielo lo podemos ver.”

“And Diego in heaven, we can see him.”

‘Looking down on Lionel Messi who many are now calling the greatest.’

Not for me. Pele, he of two feet and a sublime header of the ball, is still unsurpassed. But was this the greatest World Cup final ever? Unquestionably. It was operational.

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