Sports

Messi Sits Atop a Different Mountain Now

After the greatest World Cup final ever, Kylian Mbappé is still journeying up it.

Lionel Messi a lifts the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Winner's Trophy during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.
The champs on Sunday, in Lusail City, Qatar. Julian Finney/Getty Images

Absolutely unsurpassed.

Sunday’s tournament finale between Argentina and France is obviously the greatest World Cup final ever. Never has that match swung so feverishly back and forth across such a narrow line. One team coughed up a 2–0 lead in 90 seconds. One player scored three goals in the game and his team lost. Both keepers made incredible saves. Both defenses made boneheaded errors. Two goals were scored in extra time. The only question is whether that praise is too faint. Is it the greatest soccer match in history? The greatest sporting event? I don’t know. I haven’t seen them all. But it’s on a very, very small list. It’s like asking someone what their favorite moon landing was; its climax felt like we had just participated in one. We arranged a battle between two all-timers in Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé and somehow they both came off looking better than when it started.

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But only one of them could take the title, and here despite Mbappé’s efforts it was Messi and Argentina who prevailed, surviving every one of the haymakers the young French phenom threw its way to win on penalties after the score finished 3–3 at the end of extra time.

The game did not appear to be destined for drama. France barely seemed present for the first 75 minutes. It arrived on the field Sunday prepared to try to stop Messi but not Argentine secret weapon Ángel Di María, who hadn’t started a game in the knockout rounds after suffering a thigh injury. With France cheating to its left to get bodies between Messi and the goal, Di María ran riot on the right, serving as an outlet repeatedly and pulling right back Jules Kounde, who normally plays in the middle, farther wide than he was comfortable with. Argentina’s first two goals came from that side. For the first, Di María skated past French winger Ousmane Dembélé in the corner. Dembélé grabbed him from behind, their legs got tangled, Di María threw himself to the turf. Was it soft? Yes! Was it still dumb on the part of Dembélé? Absolutely! Don’t clip a guy from behind! Messi passed the penalty into the corner. Dembélé was subbed out before halftime.

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The tally gave Messi goals in all four of Argentina’s knockout round matches. All but one of those goals was a penalty, which is ironic for Messi because that is the weakest part of his offensive tool-kit, perhaps the only area where he is merely average.

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The second goal was the story of the entire half for Argentina, turning an unthreatening French attack into a goal in a matter of seconds. Messi bamboozled center back Dayot Upamecano at around the half-way line with a quick pair of touches, opening space for midfielder Alexis Mac Allister to charge through to receive Julián Álvarez’s pass, untracked by France’s midfielders. Mac Allister’s run pulled Koundé over, which left no one to track Di María when Mac Allister slid the pass over to him to finish beyond Hugo Lloris. If the first one felt undeserved, then this one felt perfect, crisp and decisive and unstoppable.

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And so it continued for nearly 40 more minutes. France was pancaked by the Argentinians’ energy. La Albiceleste’s midfielders were everywhere. Its defense refused to give Mbappé the chance to influence the game, starving him of service, turning him from Tecmo Bo into Tecmo Jerry Rice, dependent on others getting the ball to him. It was a good plan. It nearly worked.

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But then they tired, and France started hitting it long, and Argentina’s center back Nicolás Otamendi ran right through the back of France’s Randal Kolo Muani as they raced into the box, with Kolo Muani staying upright just long enough to get over the line before collapsing under the challenge. Mbappé took his first penalty of the World Cup and hammered it past Argentina’s Emiliano Martínez, who got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out.

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Argentina coped well with Mbappé’s speed throughout the game. Instead, they were undone by his power. Martínez would make contact with a second Mbappé penalty before the day was done, but couldn’t save that one either. Mbappé’s second goal, the equalizer a minute-and-a-half after his penalty, came after he outraced an Argentina player over five meters, not 50. He hit a volley so hard that, even as he was collapsing to the ground, Martínez again couldn’t keep it out.

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For the second time in three games, Argentina coughed up a two-goal lead late. And for the second time, it refused to let its crash landing at the end of full-time affect it in the overtime period. Substitute striker Lautaro Martínez had perhaps the worst day possible for a man who just won the World Cup, having two golden chances blocked by Upamecano and sending a free header well wide. But it was Martínez’s point-blank shot that got Argentina its third goal, with Messi reacting first to a Hugo Lloris save to steer the ball over the line before Kounde could clear it out.

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This, surely, was … no, never mind. Minutes later, Mbappé hammered a shot off the elbow of Gonzalo Montiel to earn a second clear penalty. He put this one in the same place to tie the game again, minutes from its end, utterly unfazed by the enormity of the situation—no pressure, no nerves. Yes, his ego may be titanic, but why wouldn’t it be at this point? They stuck him in the Total Perspective Vortex and he emerged unscathed. Argentina was the better team, but Mbappé was irrepressible; the game turned into one of moments, and France only needed a couple to come this close to the trophy.

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The shootout would not separate the stars, only their teams. Mbappé would make his third penalty, and second off Emiliano Martínez’s glove; Messi would sink his second, a slow roller to the opposite side of Lloris. Argentina would hold its nerve. France’s Kingsley Coman and Aurélien Tchouaméni would miss their attempts. The announcer Andrés Cantor, a GOAT of his own right in his field who was born in Buenos Aires, couldn’t contain himself as Montiel slotted the winner home.

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It is ridiculous, seeing the big pair in this game, to talk about torches being passed or clung to for longer. We knew entering the World Cup that these were two of the absolute best players in the world, and they lived up to it. They will go back to their shared club home with the same number of World Cup trophies, presumably to resume their statistical dominance of the French league. (Pity poor Neymar, quarterfinal loser, alongside them at Paris Saint-Germain.) There is room for both of them at the pinnacle, even if one has years to spend there and one will soon depart.

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But Messi is unequivocally atop a different mountain now, one Mbappé is still journeying up. A World Cup trophy was the final barrier thrown down by those who favored Pelé or Diego Maradona as the sport’s greatest player, and Messi has vaulted over it. He didn’t need to. It is folly to use the same yardstick to measure every candidate. The career of one idol does not need to trace the same path as the ones who came before him. (Your GOAT, for instance, does not necessarily need a highlight reel of series-clinching shots just because the previous one had it.) Messi’s singularity is not dependent on Aurélien Tchouaméni missing wide left, or on Gabriel Montiel making his. But they do those things, and now the greatest of all time is inarguably greater than ever before.

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This particular World Cup didn’t deserve him or Mbappé. It didn’t deserve a game of this magnitude to crown a decade of suffering and discrimination, and a month that off the field was filled with tragedy and embarrassment. We can hope that the history of this competition—of Messi’s achievement, of Mbappé’s genius, of Morocco’s charge to the semifinals, of Jude Bellingham and Luka Modric, of Ritsu Dōan and Tyler Adams, of all the joys and heartbreaks and surprises and thrills—will focus on the universal space inside that green rectangle, the one that looks like anywhere else in the world, disconnected from the cruelty that played host to it and hoped to ride its glory to prominence. We can also hope that history will never forget everything that happened outside of that rectangle, that it will demand better from the decision-makers in the future, that it will not allow dollar signs and petrochemical wealth to distract it from that cruelty. It’s a shame it had to happen here.

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But this man, this game, is worthy of this image, carried on the shoulders of his friend and former teammate Sergio Agüero and holding his life’s work’s most coveted piece of hardware as a stadium full of fans chants his name. Lionel in excelsis.

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