In the space of a half-hour, the debate morphed as quickly as Kylian Mbappe covers ground on the pitch.
Was this the best World Cup final ever? Too limiting.
Was this the best World Cup game ever? Same problem.
Was this the best soccer game ever? Or maybe even the best game in any sport humans play?
That’s where one must carry this discussion after Argentina and France tied through 120 minutes of soccer at 3-3 and the Argentines claimed the trophy with a 4-2 edge in a penalty kick shootout to end the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
We could spend this whole article explaining why this ranks among the greatest games in the history of sport, whether it’s the 1999 Champions League final or 1976 NBA Finals Game 6 or Super Bowl 43 or Game 6 at the 1975 World Series or the Kentucky-Duke overtime thriller in the 1992 NCAA Tournament or (insert your own choice here).
Instead, we will stick with this: This was the greatest World Cup game, ever.
Here’s how riveting it was: The technician doing my wife’s manicure at a salon in Fishers, Ind., stopped polishing her nails in order to turn to one of the three TVs tuned to the game and watch the shootout transpire.
And here are 10 reasons why:
1. Lionel Messi got his World Cup
He had earned his first cap with Argentina in 2005 and played in his first World Cup a year later. He played in more World Cup games than any man in history, and he came within a few minutes of winning the championship in 2014, but he went through four World Cup cycles without winning one.
After a frustrating run of three lost finals in three years (2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa America, 2016 Copa America Centenario) he even announced he was finished with international soccer. He returned before the end of that year, won the 2021 Copa America with his teammates but still longed for this trophy.
And he was no passenger for this. Even at 35, playing in his seventh game without ever departing for a minute of rest, Messi dominated the game with his skill and ingenuity and scored two of Argentina’s three goals. He became the first player ever to score in every knockout-stage game at a World Cup. He became the first player ever to win two World Cup Golden Ball trophies.
Afterward, he was carried around Lusail Stadium by his teammates and a horde of Argentina fans. It’s a scene that will be among the most memorable in modern sports.
Si, ES REAL pic.twitter.com/F6IahbUNkE— La Scaloneta 🇦🇷⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@LaScaloneta) December 18, 2022
2. Kylian Mbappe entered legendary territory
It is well premature to elevate Mbappe to the level of the sport’s greatest players, but it is not too soon to point out he’s accomplishing things at his age that they did not — and that maybe he’s on a path to joining their exclusive club.
He’s got more international goals at this age, 23, than Messi did. (And Messi’s now third all-time).
Maradona was 30 by the time he had played in two World Cup finals.
Mbappe came within a whisker of matching Pele for World Cup gold medals at this age. Mbappe was a major force in winning the 2018 World Cup and in becoming runner-up here. Pele was injured early in the tournament as Brazil won its second trophy though he was still on the roster.
Mbappe, who won the Qatar 2022 Golden Boot by finishing with eight goals, became only the second player ever to record a hat trick in a World Cup final, joining England’s Geoff Hurst from the 1966 final, which his team won, 4-2.
3. Extra time was extraordinary
So many important games that finish tied in regulation begin to lag in the extra periods because the players are exhausted.
This may be where the change in substitution rules has been good for the game, with both teams getting as many as five subs and a sixth if the game goes past regulation. There was more energy on the field as Argentina and France moved into those final 30 minutes.
The past four finals that went to extra time produced just two goals combined, with two of those going to penalty kicks and the others decided by goals in the last 10 minutes. This one had two goals itself, and the drama was extraordinary.
First you had Messi setting up Lautaro Martinez for a blistering shot that France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris stopped but had no chance to control, leaving it to Messi to lift his right leg and swat the ball away from a prone Lloris and over the goal line.
Then you had Mbappe positioning himself to field a deflected corner kick on the left side of the box and loading up and firing a powerful shot that Gonzalo Montiel unwisely deflected with his right arm. That merited a penalty, which Mbappe converted.
4. No lead was secure
France came back from 2-0 down in regulation, then from 3-2 down in extra time.
West Germany came back from 2-0 down in the 1954 World Cup final against favored Hungary. Such an event does not occur often. This will be remembered among the great comebacks even if the French couldn’t ultimately see it out to victory in penalty kicks.
5. The goalkeeping was breathtaking
In the seventh minute of second-half added time, Messi nearly scored a goal to break the 2-2 draw by stepping into a thundering left-footed strike from above the top of the box that was headed for a spot at the center of the goal, just beneath the crossbar. But France goalkeeper Lloris jumped and extended his left arm above his head to knock the ball into the air and out.
There were about 30 seconds left in the game at that point. If Lloris doesn’t stop the shot, it’s over.
Then with just a minute or so left in extra time, what should have been a harmless, hopeful forward ball was misplayed by defender Nicolas Otamendi — who earlier had gifted France a penalty to break the shutout — and that set up Randal Kolo Muani for a one-on-one with Argentina ‘keeper Emiliano Martinez.
As the ball approached, Martinez moved forward just a bit and made himself as big as possible. Kolo Muani chose to strike the ball as it arrived rather than control and try to maneuver around the ‘keeper, and Martinez managed to stick his left leg in the path of the ball and deflect it away in a save that will go down among the best in World Cup history.
6. The penalty shootout was dramatic
It is not the ideal way to decide a champion, but it is a just way. The only element decided by a coin flip is which team will shoot first and which end of the field the shootout will take place. Each team gets the same chance to win or lose.
And in only the third World Cup final shootout ever, there was pressure, and Argentina managed it beautifully, particularly forward Paulo Dybala.
Once considered a rising young star — he had 22 goals for Juventus in 2017/18, but dipped to five the next year and has experienced ups-and-downs since — Dybala was Argentina’s second taker, directly after his teammate Emiliano Martinez had made his first save.
Argentina taking the lead was entirely dependent on Dybala being successful.
He waited for Lloris to slide to his left, then fired the ball down the middle, to the spot Lloris had vacated. Argentina was on its way.
7. VAR didn’t ruin it
When the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl 43, they did not score a single touchdown that could be celebrated immediately. Everything had to be checked through replay to see if the ball actually had crossed the goal line. You talk about delayed gratification.
In this game, every penalty review was immediate. The goalline technology instantly told us Messi’s second goal, in extra time, had gone across.
And then the replay review was quick and concise as the officials analyzed whether there was an offside. Argentina celebrated what it thought had been the game-winner, and by the time they were done, they knew it counted.
This is the moment of the whole tournament for me. A goal awarded in a World Cup Final due to the size of a man's arse pic.twitter.com/yfXc0E95DS— Nooruddean (@BeardedGenius) December 18, 2022
8. The match was plenty eventful
Because both teams were attack-oriented — Argentina because that’s their customary approach and France because they fell behind by two goals — there was a high degree of chances created at both ends.
FotMob.com listed Argentina with five “big chances” and France with three. Argentina took 20 shots, France 10. Argentina had to make 21 clearances, and France was called on for 18. There were so many moments when this game could have turned either way.
9. Angel Di Maria was dynamite
One of the great players of the past two decades, Di Maria scored the winning goal in the Copa America final in 2021, earned 129 caps, and won La Liga and the Champions League with Real Madrid. He won five Ligue 1 titles with Paris Saint-Germain.
He had played in 17 World Cup games and chased this World Cup nearly as long as Messi, and he was nearly as important to getting this done.
Never, because Argentina didn’t last that long or because he was out injured when they did, had he played in a World Cup game beyond the quarterfinals.
In 2014, up the road from his home country in Brazil, he started Argentina’s first five games but injured his thigh and could not appear in the semis or final, which his side eventually lost 1-0 in extra time.
In this tournament, he arrived having been bothered since October by a hamstring injury he initially feared would keep him from Qatar altogether. He started the first three games but, against Poland in the final group game, again injured his thigh. He sat out the Round of 16 decision over Australia, then came on late against the Netherlands in the quarters. Di Maria again was rested for the whole of the semifinal victory over Croatia.
His appearance on the team sheet when Argentina released its starting lineup might have been a total shock were it not for the name. And his play lived up to his reputation. He created the penalty that led to the first goal and then scored the second. He was not in the game to participate in the shootout, but he had been enormous in the victory.
10. The winners cried, too
When Messi scored in extra time and it looked like the World Cup was Argentina’s for sure, Di Maria could be seen on the bench in tears as he anticipated the trophy ceremony.
And when Mbappe tied it, he was still crying and put a towel over his face to hide the disappointment.
And then he got to experience the actual tears of joy when it was all over.
That’s quite a ride in 15 minutes. The entire match felt exactly like that.