When Argentina’s Angel Di Maria was awarded the softest of penalties in the first half of the World Cup final, the French supporters at the Black Horse pub in Park Slope were livid. “They’re giving it to him!” they cried, referring not to Di Maria but to Lionel Messi, the man who would convert the penalty and, five goals and a shootout later, hoist the solid-gold trophy that once and for all secured his legacy as the greatest player of all time.
There was a sense that the universe was willing Messi to win, that this was the only right and fitting end to both his international career and this deeply satisfying tournament, though in truth he had to earn it over 120-plus minutes of wild and unpredictable soccer, playing the game of his life and overcoming a bravura performance from France’s Kylian Mbappé, who became the first person to score a hat trick in a World Cup final since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.
World Cup finals are usually cagey or one-sided affairs. Today’s game was neither, an evenly matched contest that featured a plethora of goals and that kept fans guessing all the way to the conclusion. After his first goal from the penalty spot, Messi played an integral role in Argentina’s second, casually flicking a ball that launched a gorgeous counterattack finished with aplomb by Di Maria — the kind of pass that causes all the defensive walls to miraculously fall away, revealing the hidden lanes and passing areas that had been there all along.
France spent most of the game shell-shocked, staggering around the field and showing little of the superior quality that saw them reach the final without ever needing to click into a higher gear. Their manager, Didier Deschamps, made a flurry of substitutions, though I’m not sure any of them really helped. The deciding factor was Mbappé, a marvel to watch when he is in full flow, his arms scything the air, his long legs stabbing the ground. France won its own soft penalty late in the second half, a karmic stroke of good luck. Mbappé slotted it home and the composition of the game changed entirely, entering an almost purely psychological realm. The two teams switched roles, and all of a sudden it was Argentina that was scattered and lost while France pressed forward with precision and purpose. Mbappé capped this emotional surge with one of the best goals of the tournament, a scissor kick from near the top of the box.
The game entered extra time, and the Argentine faithful at the Black Horse started to doubt themselves. There were macabre jokes about going to Le French Tart Deli across the street and burning it down. It was noted that Argentina had gone up 2-0 in its last World Cup victory in 1986 in Mexico, only for the West Germans to draw 2-2 late in the game, before Maradona sent Jorge Burruchaga into the clear in the dying moments to win it all 3-2. And so history seemed to replay itself in Qatar in 2022, with Messi, of course, knocking the ball into the goal off a rebound to give the Argentines the lead — only for France to win yet another penalty, and for Mbappé to notch his third.
The final had been set up as a heavyweight bout between Mbappé and Messi — young against old, the swaggering heir apparent against the wily reigning champ — and this was exactly how it turned out, the two players slugging each other to the bitter end. Mbappé scored France’s first penalty in the shootout; Messi did the same for Argentina. But it felt like fate for Messi, who had the vibes of the universe on his side. When Gonzalo Montiel scored the game-winning goal, the Black Horse erupted into cheers and began to chant: “MESSI, MESSI, MESSI.”