It seems like just yesterday that Enner Valencia swept aside Qatar in the opener of the 2022 World Cup.
As the dust settles on an exciting month of football action, fans have been treated to arguably one of the biggest World Cup tournaments in the sport’s history.
Fittingly, Sunday’s final exploded like fireworks to provide the ultimate conclusion to Qatar 2022.
This was a final of superstar rivalries, penalty shootouts, legendary goals and goalkeeping masterclasses, culminating in Lionel Messi’s crowning as world champion after Argentina beat France on penalties.
The showpiece, a moment that will long be remembered like an Impressionist masterpiece, is the iconic image of Messi – lofted on the shoulders of his teammates – with the World Cup trophy finally in his hands.
That game was billed as Kylian Mbappé vs. Messi – the 23-year-old French star was poised to take the mantle of the world’s best player from his 35-year-old Paris Saint-Germain team-mate.
Mbappé defended France’s victory in the 2018 tournament in Russia, Messi played in his final World Cup match to lift the trophy that has eluded him for so long and which would allow him to match Diego Maradona, who won the competition in 1986.
The first 79 minutes was all about Messi. Argentina’s captain converted the penalty to give Argentina the lead. Next, his skillful touch was key in jumping the move that led to La Albicelestes Second.
Then, in the closing stages of regular time, Mbappé took over the game single-handedly, scoring two goals in two minutes and sending the final into overtime.
Messi looked shot and Mbappé looked like he was about to get going.
However, it was the tiny Argentine who emerged next to score his second goal of the game and restore his team’s lead in the 109th minute.
Refusing to accept defeat, Mbappé shook up his teammates and scored a second penalty to earn his hat-trick and take the final to a penalty shootout.
Both Mbappé and Messi scored on penalties, but in the end – France missed two penalties – it was the Argentina captain who was bullied by his teammates as his World Cup dream came true in real time.
Over two hours of football, two players – at two different points in their careers – demonstrated the beautiful game in vivid, glorious Technicolor.
The last time a World Cup final ended on penalties was in 2006 when France were defeated again, this time by Italy.
Sometimes it feels unfair to end a game in a penalty shootout, a series of actions between the penalty taker and the goalkeeper.
At the Lusail Stadium on Sunday, however, the profusion of penalties seemed to add to the pressure and tension.
Messi’s first-half penalty gave him his first World Cup final goal, while his penalty shoot-out was coolness personified.
Mbappé’s ability to successfully convert from the penalty spot not just once, not twice, but three times in a game showed extreme smarts.
Previously at Qatar 2022, one team had already experienced the intensity of that pressure cooker atmosphere and come out the other side, another not.
Argentina bested the Netherlands in the quarter-finals in an epic epic that culminated in a penalty shoot-out as the South American team employed distraction and delaying tactics to mentally defeat their opponents.
In Sunday’s final, Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez demonstrated his ability to distract France’s scorers by throwing the ball away before Aurélien Tchouaméni’s attempt flew wide. France’s previous attempt – by Kingsley Coman – had been saved by Martinez.
A penalty shootout is arguably unlike anything else in sport – it’s a modern duel, and a World Cup final with so much at stake only adds to the excitement and drama.
World Cup finals are often tight and tight, goals are very important.
Argentina and France threw away that playbook – delivering six goals, two of which were top quality.
Argentina’s second goal was arguably as good as Carlos Alberto’s stunning 1970 World Cup final goal in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy.
It was in the 35th minute when a flick around the corner from Alexis Mac Allister to Messi eased some of the pressure on Argentina’s defense as France pressed for an equaliser.
Argentina were in goal after Messi’s skillful touch from Julián Álvarez and the Manchester City striker’s superbly weighted pass to Mac Allister, who had continued his run.
Mac Allister unselfishly had the presence of mind to deflect the ball to Ángel Di María, who completed a brilliant counterattack to make Argentina 2-0.
At that point it seemed like the crowning moment of a dominant Argentine victory until Mbappé emerged.
After his penalty had reduced the deficit to 2-1, a clean one-two with Marcus Thuram dropped the ball from the sky at the PSG star on the edge of Argentina’s box.
With seemingly all the time in the world, Mbappé put on a marvelous display of technique and timing to smash the ball past a despondent Martínez.
These are the moments that capture the imagination and the moments that defined the 2022 World Cup final.
It will be remembered for so many reasons – Messi’s historic moment, Mbappé’s hat-trick in the defeat, the seesaw nature of the game, which oscillated from end to end and never stopped tugging at the emotions of the stunned crowd.
Of course there is a lot of competition for the title of “The Greatest World Cup Final”.
In 1950 Uruguay upset Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, while four years later West Germany caused another big upset by defeating Hungary’s magical Magyars and giving the country its first World Cup title.
Geoff Hurst scored the first World Cup final hat-trick in the 1966 final between England and West Germany. Hurst’s second goal is still being talked about 56 years later – did the ball go over the line? According to the match officials, it did and England won 4-2.
The 1970 final was Pelé’s last World Cup appearance, as Brazil’s daring win over Italy secured his third title.
Four years later, hosts West Germany defeated a star-studded Dutch side – consisting of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens – 2-1 in Munich to win their second World Cup.
Similar to Messi in Qatar in 2022, Diego Maradona almost single-handedly led his team to their second title in eight years, beating West Germany 3-2 in the final.
In 1998, France hosted and won their first World Cup, thanks largely to the genius of Zinedine Zidane, who scored two goals in the final to defeat an impressive Brazilian side made up of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu, Bebeto and Roberto Carlos.
With its numerous storylines and the drama and artistry on display, the showpiece of 2022 certainly now holds the title of ‘The Greatest World Cup Final’.