The rapture is happening. World Cup final. Sunday. Fox. At 10 a.m. ET.
France vs. Argentina. Europe vs. South America. Baby supernova Kylian Mbappé vs. aging sky lord Lionel Messi. Defending champs vs. legends of soccer history. This is pure final battle shit. We are on the mountaintop. We are in the third act. There will be fire.
How big of a matchup is this?
Did you not read what I just said? Let me put it like this: In the course of human history, many people have used the expression “This is the big one” to refer to events that were not this game. Every one of those people was wrong.
Why do we even care about the World Cup final?
Sometimes you see a picture. Maybe it’s a video. Better if it’s a video. It depicts a space. The space is full of more human beings than its dimensions can reasonably contain. Maybe it depicts a city square at night. Old city. Statue. Cobblestones. Maybe it’s snowing a little. The square is packed with bodies. Masses of humanity fill every available opening. Everyone is facing the same direction. Wearing the same colors. Huge flags fly over the crowd. Flares are going off. A few big avenues lead out of the city square. Spokes of the central hub. And every one of these avenues is similarly packed. Bodies crowded together, as far as the eye can see.
And if it’s a video—let’s hope it’s a video—you hear everyone singing.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a soccer fan. Doesn’t matter if you’re a sports fan. We are simple people. The sight of a crowd like that does something to your heart. You feel their togetherness. Their shared hope. Shared anguish. Shared joy.
The World Cup final makes scenes like that happen. Hell, the World Cup group stage makes scenes like that happen. But the final is the closest we get—literally; there is no other event that gets us closer—to a crowd scene that encompasses the whole planet. For the two hours or so that this match is on, it will be the primary driver of emotion on earth. A friend messaged me after one of Cristiano Ronaldo’s low points during this year’s tournament to say that a plurality of all human laughter in that moment must have been directed at Ronaldo. That is probably true, and it is certainly astonishing to think about. How could you not want to be part of a moment like that?
“But I don’t care about the rest of the world; I just want to watch the NFL.” Totally fine! No one’s stopping you. Even on World Cup final day, the sports economy is large enough to cater to your niche interests.
What’s this France team like?
Fascinating. Paradoxical. I want to call its talent level “aristocratic,” but that makes no sense because real aristocrats are generally idiots. Still, Didier Deschamps’s squad is so stacked that it lost the reigning Ballon d’Or winner in its first training session—Karim Benzema, thigh injury—and still has the best and deepest team in Qatar.
The team has been hit by other major injuries, too. N’Golo Kanté, hamstring. Paul Pogba, knee. Lucas Hernandez, knee. Hasn’t mattered. Antoine Griezmann has casually reinvented himself as a central midfielder, and the rest of the team has adjusted, if that’s the right word for such a terrifying outcome. Famine tore a ligament, so War saddled up and the four horsemen of the apocalypse continued their ride on schedule.
All that is true. France have looked both effortless and apocalyptic. At the same time—here’s the paradox—they haven’t yet shown us their best game at this tournament. Deschamps’s trademark is to take a team that could steamroll anyone 5-0 and transform it into a strange force field, a slightly passive, careful, reactive unit that always does just enough to win. The result is that France, maybe more than any other World Cup squad I’ve ever seen, manages to look dominant and underwhelming at the same time. In some ways, these players look more dominant when they’re being underwhelming because they can show you their B game and still never seem to be in any danger of losing. They look better than the other team, even—especially!—when they look worse.
Maybe it’s about how hard you have to work to reach a winning level. The French have gears they seldom need to shift to, and if it’s impressive to watch one race car blow past another at warp speed, it’s also impressive to watch two cars going neck and neck at 150 miles per hour and realize that one of them is doing it in neutral. And then, every now and again, when the moment is right, France guns it. Mbappé goes tearing down the pitch with a trail of blue flames in his wake, and the scariest attack at the World Cup reminds you exactly who you’re looking at.
How did they get here?
They won Group D despite a speed bump of a loss to Tunisia in their final game, when France started a lot of bench players. Beat the phlegm out of Poland in their round of 16 match, a 3-1 win that featured two goals from Mbappé and one from Olivier Giroud and that wound up looking closer than it was thanks to a 99th-minute penalty from Robert Lewandowski. Got by England in the quarterfinals after Harry Kane missed a penalty.
Semis: They beat Morocco 2-0 in a match that epitomized the weird contradictions of the team. They went up early, spent most of the match letting Morocco almost, but not quite, score the equalizer, and then kind of unconcernedly fired in a second in the 79th minute.
FRANCE MAKES IT TWO— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 14, 2022
Randal Kolo Muani scores his first international goal for France pic.twitter.com/kTND4IeiUO
That’s the substitute Randal Kolo Muani scoring on his first touch of the match, which is as This French Team as it gets.
What’s this Argentina team like?
It’s reductive to say it’s Messi and everyone else. Still, it’s basically Messi and everyone else. The world’s greatest living player (non-Ronaldo division) is having his best World Cup. He’s dragged a good-not-great squad to victory after victory. And he’s put himself in a position to win the major prize that’s eluded him his entire career, which happens to be the biggest prize of all. And he’s doing it all at the age of 35? This is just stupid good drama. You can’t look past it. Every once in a while, a psycho-emotional arc comes along that’s so mesmerizing it makes nuts-and-bolts tactical analysis feel like a complex way of missing the point.
Messi is towering over this tournament, full stop. If Argentina win on Sunday, the popular narrative of soccer history will undergo a major shift, regardless of whether you or I think people should chill out with the whole GOAT conversation. So let’s start there: What’s Messi done so well? He’s nearly doubled his World Cup goals tally, for one thing. Came in with six, now has 11. Some of those have been penalties, it’s true. The funny thing about penalties is that they count.
What’s amazing, though, for someone who’s scored five goals in his six matches in Qatar, is that Messi has looked more impressive passing the ball than shooting it. His two biggest highlights are assists. There was the brain- and defense-shredding ball he played against the Netherlands, which we’re morally obligated to watch again right now:
And then, against Croatia, there was the cat-toying-with-its-prey move at the edge of the penalty area, a move that set up a goal for Julián Álvarez and left grizzled soccer veterans staring like they’d seen the face of God.
Messi’s whole career has been about that otherworldly sense of space, the feeling that he can see more dimensions than other people. Incredibly, in the last month, in what may be the final games of his international career, he seems to have found a few more.
Messi aside, this is a squad that gets the job done. Not a glamour side, but not scared of glamour sides, either. Álvarez has been excellent. What’s maybe most impressive about the team is the way it seems to have accelerated right into the Messi narrative rather than run away from it. Back in 2014, the last time Argentina made a World Cup final, you got the feeling that the pressure was wearing on everyone’s nerves. These guys seem to want the pressure. Pressure? They grin and tighten their bootlaces. Emiliano Martínez, the goalkeeper, has played this whole tournament as if the only thing he’s afraid of is not getting into a fight.
How did they get here?
They lost to Saudi Arabia in an all-time World Cup upset in their very first match, then just … quit losing. Won Group C despite the early loss. They eased by Australia, 2-1, in the round of 16, despite an Enzo Fernández own goal in the 77th minute.
They beat the Dutch on penalties in an instantly legendary quarterfinal match, a figurative and sometimes literal slugfest in which they went up 2-0, gave up two goals to Wout Weghorst after the 82nd minute, and then held their nerve to win the shoot-out. They elaborately taunted the Oranje afterward, saying they’d felt disrespected by various Dutch antics and high jinks. Messi personally mocking the revered Dutch coach Louis van Gaal may have been the clearest sign in the whole tournament that these guys are not playing around.
Semis: They saw off Croatia in a match that I thought was going to be tight but wasn’t. It was 3-0. Croatia looked worn out. Argentina didn’t.
Hang on, isn’t there a third-place game we should be talking about, too?
There is! Croatia vs. Morocco, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET. The third-place game is a pointless spectacle that FIFA keeps doggedly trotting out for the advertising revenue. It’s also usually a pretty fun game, and it’s not totally without stakes. The winner gets a $2 million bump to their prize money and also a cute little medal. Morocco and Croatia have already played once in this tournament, in Group F. That match ended in a 0-0 draw, which may not bode so well for Saturday. But now that the pressure is off—except for cute little medal pressure, which I assume these pros can handle—the teams should be free to play with more abandon.
Also, since the last time they met, Morocco have emerged as one of the most beloved teams in World Cup history after an incredible underdog run to the semifinals. The third-place game never sells out, but this year there should be a large and impassioned pro-Morocco crowd. No, it’s not the final. But I bet it’ll feel closer than you might think.
What will happen in the final?
Assuming Messi doesn’t eat some bad chicken on Saturday night, he’ll play in his 26th World Cup game, moving him past Germany’s Lothar Matthaus for first place on the list of most World Cup appearances by a male player. Beyond that? Who knows what will happen. Fire and rain and lightning will happen. Several hundred million people collectively losing their minds will happen. Someone winning the World Cup will happen. I genuinely do not have a clue who it will be.
If I had to guess? I’m taking France. My heart says Argentina, but my head says that France’s bizarre, captivating ability to negate whatever their opponents do is bigger than Argentina’s passion and Messi’s destiny. The way I imagine it, France casually scores at light speed on a counter. Argentina laboriously battles for an equalizer. Messi goes close a million times, but Mbappé casually scores a second. Argentina claws one back through a penalty at the end. It goes 2-1 to the French, who become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Garrincha led Brazil to a repeat title in 1962.
Something like that. If you’re an Argentina fan, you can take comfort in the fact that my predictions are almost always wrong.
Except this one: You’ll want to watch.