Considering the nature of events over the past two or three years, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a time when the World Cup Final is staged seven days before Christmas Day; the topsy-turvy, upside-down nature of where we are now expects nothing less – ditto the fact that (against all odds) a tournament rightly mired in controversy from the off climaxes with a match that ends up being one of the most edge-of-the-seat contests anyone can ever remember, one that also confirms a 35-year-old is officially acknowledged as the planet’s finest footballer. After all, the natural order was shown the door when this dismal decade was no more than a couple of months old, and ever since then we appear to have been living through a strange age when anything that had previously been logically written-off as fringe lunacy now goes – an era in which double-speak, thought-crime and 2+2=5 are the new normal; and questioning this trend is verboten in polite society. Not that Lionel Messi will be complaining; he’s finally got his hands on the one trophy that has always eluded him in a professional career that began as far back as his league debut for Barcelona in 2004. A lot of the talk over the past month has been focused on ending that career on a high, but there are a small handful of precedents should he care to dip into the history books.
The legendary Stanley Matthews played his last game for England at the age of 42 in 1957 – 23 years after his international debut; the fact he didn’t retire from football altogether until the age of 50 in 1965 is all the more amazing when one remembers he belonged to a generation of players whose careers were interrupted by six years of World War; moreover, he was unfortunate to be playing at a time when England’s performances at the World Cup never matched up to pre-tournament expectations. Lionel Messi has himself experienced many occasions during his five World Cups when the hopes of a nation have rested on his shoulders, shoulders weighed down by the burden of carrying average talents unworthy of his boots; but soldiering on eventually paid off. Due to his quiet, unassuming manner, Messi’s fame within the game has never really transcended football in the way of his flamboyant contemporary Cristiano Renaldo – nor indeed the ghost who haunts Argentina’s international side, Diego Maradona. But perhaps the additional crowning glory to Messi’s career has been to finally achieve global pop cultural status.
On Sunday’s field of play, Messi’s reputation was up against a young contender in the shape of his Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Kylian Mbappé of France. The other 20+ men on display almost seemed superfluous next to the God-like genius present in the feet of these two, certainly if pre-match hype was to be believed; but it was Messi who lived up to that hype in the first half, scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot and inspiring his side to a 2-0 lead that appeared unassailable to the lacklustre defending champions. France’s unexpected comeback towards the end of the game, levelling things at 2-2 and coming close to a shock victory in the dying light of normal time, revived a match that looked to be smoothly careering towards a preordained conclusion. But, as with the late West Germany equaliser that enabled 1966 to loom so large in the collective memory of all Englishmen, extra-time proved to be the making of the 2022 Final; and a game that seemed to contain everything had other echoes of 1966 too. There was Messi’s second goal (making the score 3-2) momentarily disputed at having crossed the line, and there was Geoff Hurst’s 56-year-old record finally being equalled as Mbappé scored a hat-trick, with a late penalty bringing the score to 3-3.
Okay, so it was eventually decided on penalties; but this wasn’t the contrived climax to one of those drab, fun-free Finals of recent years (1994 and 2006 spring to mind) – instead, it served as the only fitting icing to a nail-biting drama unparalleled in the footballing memories of most watching. And, whilst there may have been an interminable wait between the winning penalty and Messi being handed the trophy by a FIFA President who clearly didn’t want to let go of it (not to mention the player of the tournament being inexplicably draped in what resembled a see-through negligee from a 70s sex comedy), in the end the script penned by celestial hands was upheld and Argentina were recognised as world champions for a third time. A month ago, such an outcome had seemed pretty unimaginable, not least due to the fact Argentina had begun their campaign humiliated by the first of many upsets the contest produced, losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia. Gianni Infantino, the same FIFA President who evidently wanted to bask in Messi’s magic glow on the podium, had opened proceedings with a bizarre press conference in which he responded to justifiable criticisms of the Qatar setting by declaring, ‘Today I feel Qatari; today I feel Arab; today I feel African; today I feel gay; today I feel disabled; today I feel a migrant worker.’ He didn’t add, ‘Today I feel President of an institutionally corrupt organisation that will bend over for any country with enough cash to roger it senseless and drag the sport through the mud.’ But you can’t have everything.
Opening in a key so low only Paul Robeson had previously been there, the 2022 World Cup prompted a generous amount of somewhat belated questions on the part of mainstream TV presenters and pundits from their executive boxes in stadiums built by slave labour prior to a ball being kicked; once the football actually began, anticipation over which players would choose to stage a protest was as widely discussed as any proposed performance on the pitch. As has been said before, however, there was always the 1978 example of the great Johan Cruyff, who opted out of that year’s World Cup in Argentina on account of refusing to condone the country’s ruling military junta – though none of today’s soccer superstars decided to follow suit. Despite rumours that the England team would honour their manager’s Woke credentials once again by running on the field bedecked in rainbow armbands, they restricted themselves to the jaded knee-taking ritual; that this virtue-signalling ceremony is well past its sell-by date was highlighted in an amusingly ludicrous manner when England played the USA, and the American players – who had started the whole thing in the first place – remained standing whilst the England team knelt before them; one could almost see it as a metaphor for the ‘Special Relationship’.
Sure, the German players added to the checklist of virtuous signals by indulging in a spot of pre-match mouth-covering before another embarrassing exit at the group stage, but the one visual statement made by a team that represented genuine bravery rather than the superficial ‘stunning and brave’ accolade routinely awarded to millionaires making a token gesture to ensure they remain on the Right Side of History was made by the Iran team. Their incredibly courageous decision to remain mute during the playing of the Iranian national anthem took balls, especially when one considers their families back home risked reprisals from the powers-that-be, let alone what might await the players themselves upon their return. In some respects, this memorable moment couldn’t be topped, and the focus more or less settled on the sport itself thereafter. And there were various surprises along the way, none more so than Morocco’s remarkable progress to the Semi-final, disposing of favourites such as Belgium, Spain and Portugal en route.
But, of course, whatever sour taste so much of this World Cup leaves in the mouth, at least it enabled Lionel Messi to fulfil his destiny; and I suspect that incredible Final will be the lingering memory of a tournament that should never have happened yet eventually served as a novel distraction from all the other cheery issues of the moment that are bringing so much joy into our lives. And all will recommence again three-and-a-half years from now in North Korea…er…sorry, North America. Well, you never know with FIFA…
© The Editor