While watching the final yesterday, I tried to liken it to other famous matches, because enjoying things for what they are isn’t my thing.
First to mind was the France-Brazil final in 1998. If memory serves, Brazil was a slight favorite heading into that game, and then word got out that Ronaldo– now with appellation “Nazario,” which presumably means “has won a World Cup”– was ill and might miss the game. He played anyways, but Brazil looked off. France was up 2-0 at the half, and went on to win 3-0.
That seemed to fit. France had been dealing with more injuries and illnesses than most had, including a virus going through camp in the days leading up to the semifinal and the final. Argentina was, at least in my mind, an underdog. Argentina got up early on a Messi PK, France had to throw more guys forward, and Argentina went up 2-0.
But instead of getting put away for good, France came back. Mbappé proved his mettle.
So then I was reminded of the ’05 Champions League final, when Milan went up 3-0 early, and Liverpool roared back in the second half to tie it just an hour in. Then the game slowed down significantly for the last 30 plus overtime and, unfortunately, Liverpool won on PKs. That seemed like a good analogue. Argentina’s lead wasn’t as big as Milan, but they held it a lot later than Milan did, so France’s later comeback was at least as impressive as Liverpool’s bigger comeback. And so I thought the game would slow down for the last ten minutes plus stoppage, and then slink into overtime and maybe PKs.
But France kept throwing everything at Argentina for the last few minutes and stoppage time, going for the greatest comeback ever. The game didn’t slink into overtime. It escalated. Argentina got their second wind and threw everything back.
And then Messi scored that third goal, and it looked like 1986, when Maradona and company fought off a West German comeback from 2-0 down, and Maradona got the winning assist late. A fitting parallel, except that Messi would score the winner himself this time, not dish it, and raise the Cup– and he hadn’t used the “hand of God” to do so. This was better than ’86.
Except that Mbappé scored one more time, and all comparisons ran out. I didn’t care who won the shootout– either way would be a great story.
I once wrote that the ’06 final was great for having everything bad about soccer– “dives, bad calls, make-up calls, taunting, head-butting, exhaustion, and a dreaded penalty shootout.” This one was great for having everything good about soccer. Great offense, both teams trying to win instead of parking the bus and playing for counters (or worse, grinding it out for a shootout), no egregious calls, good calls on all three PKs, no inexplicable violence from either captain, both teams being thrown back on their heels and then roaring back… and a dreaded penalty shootout.
Yet this one wasn’t actually dreaded. Oftentimes shootouts serve to grudgingly pick between two awful performances, or to see whether the parked-bus can finally sneak past the overwhelming offense. Those shootouts are dreaded. This shootout pitted actual gunslingers against each other. Two winners were actively trying to win, and we needed to choose a champion.
Congratulations to Argentina and especially, of course, to Messi.
I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement with Inter Miami.