Skip to main content

Argentina's captain Lionel Messi kisses the World Cup Trophy after Argentina beat France to win the Qatar 2022 World Cup at Lusail Stadium on Dec. 18.AFP Contributor#AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Up until Sunday, this had been the World Cup of bitter tears.

Most of those were shed by players, and usually because they were feeling sorry for themselves. The ur-image of this carnival of self pity was Cristiano Ronaldo’s long walk to nowhere after Portugal was bumped out of the tournament.

Mr. Ronaldo cried on the field, and then he cried as he walked off it, then he cried in the hallways, and in the locker room, and for all we know all the way out to the parking lot. He cried so long and hard that he had a security guard guiding him by the arm, so that he wouldn’t walk into a pillar and have a real reason to cry.

A great deal of emotion permeated the past month, and most of it was negative. People complained about the hosts, Qatar. Qatar complained about complaining guests.

Fans complained about the lack of booze and the shabby accommodations. Teams complained that no one lets you complain in peace any more. FIFA complained about all the complaining.

The stadiums were great and the buses ran on time, but based on emotional temperature alone, this World Cup should have been a bust. Held out of annual sync, in a country that exists out of history, in a part of the world no one can get to, for a cost that should not be borne.

But then Argentina played France in the final. And just like that, the story flips. One great game at exactly the right time can do that.

Just watching this final was like putting yourself head-first into an emotional wringer and then going all the way through until you were flat. Now imagine being there. Imagine playing in it. Imagine winning it.

Given the stage, the stakes and the size of the audience, there is no valid comparison point in all of sports for what we saw on Sunday. In a little under three hours, those two teams wrote War and Peace. They made a cultural milestone about which books will be written, songs sung and a billion ‘Do you remember the time when?’ stories will be told.

It was a truly global heritage moment – maybe the most enthralling of this century.

How did the match go exactly?

Well, sort of like this. Argentina was so good for so long that everyone on Earth had started to feel sorry for France, and maybe just a little bit angry at it, too, for wasting their morning/afternoon/evening.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi was the greatest player ever. Space was being cleared in front of the United Nations so they could put up a statue of him celebrating his also becoming the greatest human in history.

A million game stories were already written. For a long time there, you were asking yourself if you could write about a French team losing in this way and not include the word ‘surrender’. (Answer: You could not.)

But around the 80-minute mark, France’s Kylian Mbappé showed up for work. He scored two goals in two minutes, as though that’s something that happens all the time.

Mr. Messi scored another in added-extra time and Mr. Mbappé followed with his third. For about an hour there, if a satellite had crashed into your house you would have slapped the phone out of someone’s hand if they’d tried to call for help. This was too important to miss.

France's Kylian Mbappé celebrates scoring his side's second goal during the World Cup final.Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

In the last seconds of added-extra time, the French had it again, until the designated villain of the piece, Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, stuck out a left foot that will live as long in Argentine memory as Diego Maradona’s left hand.

In the space between regular action and the penalties to come, play-by-play man Peter Drury summed up the feelings of the roughly billion and a half people watching: “What can we say but ‘Thank you’. For surely, this is one of the greatest football matches that has ever been played.”

Argentina won it in the end, 4-2 in a penalty shootout after a 3-3 draw.

How great was this match? So great that no one in it failed. Every player on the pitch was immortalized by his presence there.

Most games happen in thirds. This one was a 12-part series. There were whole sections of it no one will ever talk about again, that had they come out just a little different would be iconic.

What can you say about a game in which Mr. Mbappé scored a hat trick and lost? That it was as close as sports ever gets to transcendence.

There were plenty of tears on Sunday, but this wasn’t the arid, performative wailing that has infiltrated sports at all levels. These were the sort that caught people by surprise and overcame them.

For me, the highlight of the game is still Angel Di Maria, the hero from all the way back when Argentina had it in the bag, so overcome that he couldn’t run any more. No one was watching him in that moment. He’d drawn the first penalty and then scored a beautiful goal. His name was in the midst of being etched in the Argentine stars beside Mario Kempes and Jorge Burruchaga. The enormity of the situation just got hold of him.

For the next two hours, every time you caught sight of Mr. Di Maria on the bench, he was wailing for some reason or another. He looked like someone’s overly emotional dad at the school pageant.

You know who didn’t really cry? Mr. Messi.

However big this game became, Mr. Messi kept getting bigger. He scored the first via penalty, made the second possible with a ridiculous chip and bundled in the third. His penalty was so cheeky – he patted the ball more than he kicked it – that it should be studied by diplomats hoping to offend whole countries with a single gesture.

Afterward, he wandered around in a daze, hugging anyone who came within arms’ length. While his teammates lolled around on the ground, Mr. Messi tried to lock eyes with every single person in the stadium and give them a little clap.

He’d done it. Thirty-plus years of effort, and Mr. Messi had just finished the job. He’s the greatest ever. This trophy puts him over the top.

You’d have to be a formidable Grinch to feel anything but happy for him. But that won’t stop people. The same way I still can’t stop the feeling that that World Cup-specific Adidas ad I’ve now watched eight million times will trail me unto death: “You can’t forget about your boy, Stormz!” Please, please, I beg you. Let me try.

In the end, our collective memory can only hold a few moments in place. Like Pele being carried off the field in 1970, this match and Mr. Messi’s long, celebratory walk after it is what people will recall of this World Cup. Everything else will fade.

As such, the tournament gets a finish it probably didn’t deserve. It was a flawed vehicle, but it had the good luck of holding within it one perfect game.