World Cup Final: Never mind the gamesmanship, Messi fulfils his destiny

AT TIMES, Qatar 2022 seemed to be a tournament devised to get Lionel Messi the one major prize that had eluded him in his illustrious career: the FIFA World Cup. The media were constantly sycophantic, ignoring all other contributions, referees seemed far too lenient when Messi transgressed and Argentina’s “shithousery” was largely overlooked as they worked to fulfil the destiny of the little man from Rosario.

Argentina won the World Cup on penalties, a wholly unsatisfactory way for any team to win a tournament. If FIFA had a little more imagination, the holders should have retained their title if their opponents failed to beat them in the match itself. But for a month of football and 64 games to be settled by a fairground sideshow is not just inappropriate but also leaves one with a hollow feeling.

Not that Messi and his team-mates will care too much about how they did it, because they demonstrated throughout the competition that they were prepared to go to any length to win the World Cup. The behaviour of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who had been excellent in his shot-stopping and overall agility, performed like an ill-disciplined pub keeper in the vital shoot-out. It left a lot to be desired and if he had acted likewise against an England team, the TV pundits would have been outraged. It was a pity, for Martinez fully deserved his golden glove award and will surely earn himself a move to a big ticket club in the near future.

The final itself was outstanding, as riveting as anything produced in past World Cups. Argentina merited their two-goal lead and France looked incapable of turning the deficit around until they were awarded a penalty in the 78th minute. Kylian Mbappé scored the spot-kick and then netted a truly spectacular volley less than two minutes later to square the game at 2-2. The blood seemed to drain from the face of Messi and others and France looked more likely to score a third before the end of 90 minutes.

Unlike some games, extra time kept everyone on their toes. Messi was denied by Hugo Lloris, but in the 108th minute, he scored from close range but Mbappé saved France with another penalty with two minutes remaining. France missed the chance to clinch victory in the dying seconds, but there was a sense of inevitability about the penalty contest.

Martinez successfully distracted the French players with his face-pulling, jibes and antics that included throwing the ball away. Given this was almost the last act of a pulsating game, his gamesmanship will be remembered just as much as his penalty saves. He certainly warranted his yellow card.

The world didn’t care, for so many people had been willing Messi to win the World Cup. He was also named player of the tournament and was denied the Golden Boot by Mbappé, eight goals to seven. Messi’s haul did include four penalties, some of which appeared to be quite meekly awarded.

Qatar 2022 was an interesting World Cup, never dull and often exhilarating. There were no truly outstanding teams but a few that were enhanced by talented individuals. The most focused and determined sides reached the final four and Argentina had Messi to steer them in the right direction. Without him, they wouldn’t have got far, but they did and they just about deserved their title.

Unfortunately, FIFA still needs someone to set them on the right path. Qatar 2022 may have been successful as a balance sheet exercise, but try to convince anyone with a social conscience that it was the right thing to do. All through the past month, there was an underlying feeling of mistrust around attendances, penalties given to favoured teams and ridiculous amounts of added time. And having made the trip to Qatar with various agendas to show displeasure at the hosts’ human rights record, FIFA stopped them stone dead once they were in the Middle East. It would be nice to believe FIFA has learned a lesson or two, but that really is wishful thinking. Qatar will not be the last suspect host nation.

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