This marks France’s fourth final since 1998. It won in 2018, when it was much the best side. This time is different. France entered Qatar 2022 missing striker Karim Benzema, the world player of the year, and gifted midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. As a workaround, French coach Didier Deschamps, himself a midfielder on the 1998 champs, shifted Antoine Griezmann from forward to midfielder. The move has had stunning results.
With the possible exception of Brazil, France sits atop Earth’s deepest reservoir of talent. With Benzema injured, the 23-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe has solidified the case for himself as the world’s best player. He scored in the 2018 final. He has five goals and three assists this time, just like Messi. Olivier Giroud, a striker who didn’t score in the 2018 World Cup, has four goals this time – at age 36.
Argentina mostly is Messi, who’s 35, but being mostly Messi hasn’t always been enough. Not until the 2021 Copa America did the Argentines win a significant competition with the purported GOAT. (Pele won three World Cups, Maradona one.) Messi and Argentina lost in the 2014 finals to Germany, leading to Messi being named, more on reputation than reality, the tournament’s best player.
Messi has been far better this time, close to peak Messi, which means peak anybody ever. He also has become, to borrow Jonathan Clegg’s and Joshua Robinson’s characterization in the Wall Street Journal, Evil Messi. After Argentina beat Mexico, he was caught on camera stomping on the Mexican flag. In the next game, he declined to shake Robert Lewandowski’s hand after the Polish star sought to apologize for a foul.
Which prompted Clegg/Robinson to type this epic line: “He refused even to acknowledge (Lewandowski’s) presence, staring off into the distance with the icy sneer of a man who keeps a secret lair inside a volcano.”
In the quarterfinals, Messi taunted Dutch players after Argentina blew a lead but won a shootout. He said Luis van Gaal, who coached the Netherlands, “talks too much.” He ripped referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, who failed to give a yellow card for an obvious Messi handball. He interrupted a postgame interview to yell at Wout Weghorst, who scored both Dutch goals, “What are you looking at, fool?”
So there’s your role-reversal final: Fun France, the reigning champ, seeking to thwart the formerly cuddly Messi in the heart of Qatar, whose rulers might or might not have a heart. Next stop, the USA. And Mexico. And Canada. Don’t forget Canada.