It seems only yesterday that Enner Valencia was swatting aside Qatar in the 2022 World Cup’s curtain raiser.
As the dust settles on an enthralling month of soccer action, fans have been treated to arguably one of the greatest ever World Cup tournaments in the sport’s history.
In fitting fashion, Sunday’s final exploded like a firework display to provide the ultimate conclusion to Qatar 2022.
This was a final that had superstar rivalries, penalties, iconic goals and goalkeeping masterclasses, culminating in Lionel Messi’s crowning as world champion after Argentina beat France on penalties.
The pièce de resistance, a moment that will live long in the memory like an impressionistic masterpiece, is that iconic image of Messi – lifted aloft on his teammates’ shoulders – with the World Cup trophy finally in his hands.
This match had been billed as Kylian Mbappé vs. Messi – the 23-year-old French star ready to assume the mantle of the world’s greatest player from his 35-year-old Paris Saint-Germain teammate.
Mbappé was defending France’s 2018 win at the tournament in Russia, Messi was playing in his final World Cup match, looking to claim the trophy which has eluded him for so long and which would enable him to match Diego Maradona’s achievement of winning the 1986 competition.
The opening 79 minutes was all about Messi. Argentina’s captain converted the penalty to give Argentina the lead. Next, his deft touch was key in springing the move which led to La Albiceleste’s second.
Then in the closing stages of normal time, Mbappé single-handedly took a grip of the game, scoring two goals in two minutes and sending the final to extra time.
Messi looked shot and Mbappé looked like he was just getting going.
Except it was the diminutive Argentine who next popped up to score his second goal of the match and restore his team’s lead in the 109th minute.
Refusing to accept defeat, Mbappé roused his teammates, scoring a second penalty to grab his hat-trick and take the final to a penalty shootout.
Both Mbappé and Messi scored in the shootout but in the end – with France missing two penalties – it was the Argentina captain who was mobbed by his teammates as his World Cup dream was lived out in real time.
Over two hours of soccer, these were two players – at two different points of their careers – demonstrating the beautiful game in vivid, glorious technicolor.
The last time a World Cup final went to penalties was in 2006 when France was once again beaten, this time by Italy.
Sometimes, it feels unfair to settle a game in a shootout, a series of actions between the penalty taker and the goalkeeper.
However, at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday, the abundance of penalties seemed to ratchet up the pressure and tension.
Messi’s penalty in the first half gave him his first World Cup final goal, while his spot kick in the shootout was coolness personified.
Mbappé’s ability to not once, not twice, but three times successfully convert from the spot in one game showed extreme gumption.
Previously at Qatar 2022, one team had already experienced the intensity of that pressure cooker atmosphere and emerged the other side, and one which had not.
Argentina got the better of the Netherlands in the quarterfinals in an epic which culminated in a penalty shootout, and one which saw the South American team display distraction and delaying tactics to arguably mentally monster their opponents.
In Sunday’s final, Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez showed his ability to distract the French takers, throwing the ball away before Aurélien Tchouaméni’s attempt, which flew wide. France’s previous attempt – from Kingsley Coman – had been saved by Martinez.
A penalty shootout is arguably unlike anything else in sports – it’s a modern day duel and a World Cup final with so much at stake only heightens the tension and drama.
World Cup finals are often tight and cagey affairs, with goals at a premium.
Argentina and France threw away that playbook – delivering six goals, two of which were of the highest quality.
Argentina’s second was arguably as good as Carlos Alberto’s breathtaking goal in the 1970 World Cup final in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy.
It was in the 35th minute, when a flick round the corner from Alexis Mac Allister to Messi, relieved some pressure on the Argentina defense as France pushed for an equalizer.
After Messi’s deft touch to Julián Álvarez and the Manchester City forward’s excellently weighted pass to Mac Allister, who had continued his run, Argentina was in on goal.
Unselfishly, Mac Allister had the presence of mind to square the ball to Ángel Di María who finished off a brilliant sweeping counterattack to put Argentina up 2-0.
At that point, it looked to be the crowning moment of a dominant Argentina victory, until Mbappé stepped up.
After his penalty reduced the deficit to 2-1, a neat one-two with Marcus Thuram had the ball falling to the PSG star out of the sky on the edge of Argentina’s penalty area.
With seemingly all the time in the world, Mbappé produced a wonderful display of technique and timing to thunder the ball past a despairing Martínez.
These are the moments that capture imaginations and the moments that came to define the 2022 World Cup final.
It will be remembered for so many reasons – Messi’s moment of history, Mbappé’s hat-trick in defeat, the seesaw nature of the game that oscillated from end to end and never ceased to tug on gobsmacked watchers’ emotions.
Of course, there’s plenty of competition for the title of ‘greatest World Cup final.’
In 1950, Uruguay upset Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, while four years later, West Germany provided another huge surprise, beating Hungary’s Magical Magyars, earning the country its first World Cup title.
Geoff Hurst scored the first World Cup final hat-trick in the 1966 final between England and West Geramy. Hurst’s second goal is still talked about 56 years later – did the ball cross the line? It did, according to the game’s officials and England won 4-2.
The 1970 final marked Pelé’s last World Cup appearance as he secured his third title in Brazil’s swashbuckling victory over Italy.
Four years later in Munich, host West Germany came from behind to win 2-1 against a star-studded Netherlands team – made up of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens – to win its second World Cup.
Much like Messi at Qatar 2022, Diego Maradona almost single-handedly drove his team to its second title in eight years, beating West Germany 3-2 in the final.
In 1998, France hosted and won its first World Cup, mainly down to the genius of Zinedine Zidane, who scored twice in the final, to beat a formidable Brazil side, composed of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu, Bebeto and Roberto Carlos.
However, with its multiple story lines and the drama and artistry on display, surely the 2022 showpiece now owns the title of ‘greatest World Cup final.’