After the 2022 World Cup Final, almost the entire world proclaimed, “What a game!”, but the better and more accurate proclamation would have been, “What a sport!” That’s because the greatest World Cup Final ever (which it undoubtedly was) is the definitive proof that football is the greatest sport.
The Beautiful Game Can Also Be The Most Boring Game…
🏆 𝐂𝐇𝐀𝐌𝐏𝐈𝐎𝐍𝐒 🏆 pic.twitter.com/L2QO9h85hf
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) December 18, 2022
The unique quality of football that differentiates it from all other sports (and I say this as someone who watches and enjoys almost all other sports as well as football) is that it can replicate life more completely than any other sport. More than any other sport, it can replicate both the potential dullness of life (the grind, the tedium, and the drudge of it) AND the potential incandescence of life (the excitement, the joy, and the sheer thrill of it), as well as the fact that dullness can give way to incandescence at any point. And it’s impossible to think of a single football match ever played that encompassed that completeness of life and football’s ability to replicate it than the 2022 World Cup Final.
The fact is that for almost the entirety of the regulation 90 minutes, the 2022 World Cup Final was a contender for the title of the worst World Cup Final ever. Argentina and their extraordinary fans, who effectively recreated Argentina 78 at Qatar 22 (only the cascades of blue-and-white ticker tape were missing), almost literally roared into a 2-0 lead and France looked not just completely beaten but completely incapable of competing.
It seemed that the flu-like illness that had ravaged their camp during the previous week had affected everyone, to the extent that the defending World Champions were producing the worst performance by a defending World Champion in a World Cup Final since Brazil in 1998 when the Seleção were similarly afflicted by the fit suffered by Ronaldo (that is, the Brazilian Ronaldo or Originaldo for short).
For most of the second half, it appeared inevitable that Argentina would score the third goal to kill off the game completely, just as the France 1998 side had scored a late third goal through Emmanuel Petit after Zinedine Zidane had put them two up. Consequently, it seemed that France would come full circle from their first-ever World Cup win by producing the kind of utterly anemic performance that the Brazilians had produced against them in Paris 24 years earlier.
SIMPLY INCREDIBLE! 🤯
MBAPPE MAKES IT 2-2 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/us8uv2yUmi
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) December 18, 2022
Then, as only a football match can, the match turned completely, and almost instantaneously. First, Nicolas Otamendi confirmed, even in his 100th match for Argentina, that he remained their weakest link, by letting French substitute Randal Kolo Muani get ahead of him and then even more foolishly bringing him down inside the box.
Kylian Mbappé, who had been so anonymous beforehand that it appeared almost laughable to consider him as Lionel Messi’s natural successor as the greatest player in the world, duly scored the penalty, and then within 90 seconds, he scored one of the finest goals ever seen in a World Cup Final (after one of the finest one-twos ever seen in any game) to make it 2-2. And from then on, the match really began.
…AND The Most Exciting Game
What followed, after nearly 80 minutes of tedium, was nearly another hour of sheer excitement, as these two tactically well-drilled teams virtually reverted to two teams of schoolchildren desperately trying to win the last match of the lunch hour before being dragged back to the classroom. In particular, Messi and Mbappé turned the ultimate team sport into a personal duel.
Even before the match entered extra time, both men nearly won it. First, it seemed that Messi would literally recreate Maradona’s match-winning genius in the 1986 World Cup Final by playing a sumptuous late pass to send a team-mate away for the winner. Then Mbappé invoked his own inner Diego (there’s one inside all the greatest players and not just Argentinian geniuses) to dribble past several defenders right at the death before being dispossessed and just before he could attempt to shoot.
A Wild Extra Time Fitting for the Greatest World Cup Final
Then in extra time, and particularly, the second half of extra time, the excitement went almost literally off the charts. First, Messi appeared to strike the decisive winning goal by finishing from close range after another superb Argentinian move. But not to be outdone, even at the very end of extra time, Mbappé first won a penalty with a shot that Argentinian sub-Gonzalo Montiel deflected away with his elbow, before coolly slotting it home to make it 3-3 to force penalties. The fact that Mbappé thus became only the second man ever to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final, after Geoff Hurst in 1966, was almost an afterthought as the shootout began.
WHAT A MOMENT! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/ibSget2lV4
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) December 18, 2022
Fittingly, Mbappé and Messi both took the first penalties for their teams and scored them effortlessly, thus confirming their own individual excellence during the Final. However, after the immortals had scored their penalties, it was left to the mere mortals to take theirs and inevitably several of them missed. Unfortunately for France, their players were the most mortal of all, as both Kingsley Coman and Aurélien Tchouaméni, who had both been instrumental in France’s Lazarus-like comeback, missed theirs. Thus it was left to Montiel, the man whose slightly-extended elbow had taken the game to penalties, to score the crucial, winning penalty, to give Argentina, their adoring fans, and Messi in particular the crown.
All Other Sports Aspire To The Condition of Football
The great Victorian writer Walter Pater, the man who had the last word on a wide variety of subjects, famously said, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”. He meant that no other art could as completely replicate and elevate life as music could, and consequently all other arts aspired to its condition.
Well, I believe that the same can be said of football – that all other sport constantly aspires to the condition of football. Its ability, like music, to replicate and elevate life is unmatched by any other sport. It can be as dull and seemingly pointless as life, without the steady stream of points or runs that most other sports rely on to maintain a constant stream of interest. But then, in a moment, it can change completely and become as joyous and incandescent as life, in a way that no other sport, for all their own intrinsic qualities, comes close to matching.
READ MORE: The World Cups with Worse Organisers Than Qatar
Despite its many ills, and the very fact that the World Cup was taking place in a country actively hostile to LGBTQ+ people (not to mention the migrant workers who built the spectacular stadia) was a reminder of those ills, football remains the greatest sport: the only sport that is as utterly unpredictable and capable of instantaneous change as life itself. And the 2022 World Cup Final, the greatest World Cup Final ever, proved that conclusively.