AL KHORA, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup began in controversy with chaos. It started here at the Al Bayt Stadium with a night for Qatar and then quickly turned upside down. It pushed Argentina to the brink after less than 48 hours and soon saw off Belgium and Germany. It continued all the way to the semi-finals with Morocco and Croatia, and it ended on Tuesday and Wednesday in the footsteps of two giants.
There chaos gave way to order.
And it was here that the cute, inspiring tales of the underdog gave way to a clash of the titans.
It will be Argentina vs. France, Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappe after the French beat Morocco on Wednesday. It will be a dream finale in a futuristic city from scratch in a cavernous stadium growing out of the desert. It all still feels a little weird and crazy, a little uncomfortable and morally complicated, but my goodness, it’s going to be packed with luxurious narratives. It seems almost incapable of disappointing.
It will be a battle of continents, vibrations and generations. Either the torch will be passed, from the GOAT to the first potential claimant to his throne; or to The GOAT will be baptized. Mbappe, who has done more by the age of 24 than perhaps anyone since Pele, is on course for “all the records”, as French team-mates and coaches have said, but Argentina can stop them.
The 23-year-old French prince did not score in Wednesday’s semi-final, but in moments, split seconds, he showed why he is so feared. He beat the Moroccan defenders without the ball. He picked it up too, pushed it past them and turned on the turbo jets. He even deflected Messi’s lovely dribble to set up France’s second goal.
For all the inevitable talk of individuals, of perhaps the two most talented footballers on the planet, this will be team against team, unit against unit, sharp new coach against sharp World Cup winning coach.
“It’s not just Messi in this team,” French forward Olivier Giroud said on Wednesday. “They have great players who also work as a team.”
Four years ago, when these two teams met in the round of 16, so It was only Messi – which of course is an exaggeration, but Argentina was a mess around him. The French remember this game; head coach Didier Deschamps remembers how Messi surprisingly played as something of a striker; Giroud remembers how N’Golo Kante, the ever-ubiquitous French midfielder, “was there the whole game [Messi’s] back.”
But “four years ago, of course, things were different,” Deschamps said. Four years later, Messi is reinstated and moved to a more suitable role.
“Messi has been in brilliant form since the start of the tournament,” said Deschamps.
“Any team with Messi is a completely different proposition,” said French forward Antoine Griezmann, who has followed Argentina throughout the tournament with his teammates.
“I mean, he’s an incredible player,” Giroud said. “But we’re not going to let him have the best night he can have. We want to win this game, we want to win another World Cup. And we’re going to try everything to stop him.
And while they don’t have Kante, Paul Pogba, or many of the 2018 regulars out injured, they have an almost perfect mix of kids and vets. They have Aurelien Tchouameni, a majestic, talented midfielder who plays a bit in Kante’s place. And they have the 2018 winners to help guide them and other World Cup first-timers.
Griezmann remembers crying four years ago after Belgium’s defeat in that semi-final. “And I think I’m more focused now,” he said Wednesday after the semifinal. “I’m already focused on the final on Sunday. I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground.”
Unfortunately, they might also have a virus that spreads. Adrien Rabiot and Deyot Umpemekano, starters in midfield and defense respectively, missed the match against Morocco with flu-like symptoms. Deschamps hinted that Kingsley Coman was also feeling unwell.
“We’re taking every precaution, we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t spread,” he said. Rabiot stayed at the team hotel instead of going to Wednesday’s game. “But viruses are, of course, infectious,” he added.
However, France has enough depth to withstand an outbreak. There are also many in Argentina. Together, they have all the ingredients to create a final that is the most memorable of the 21st century.
The tournament as a whole has also been memorable. The controversy does not and will not disappear; it will ruin the legacy event. But football, in a vacuum, is excited. It showcased drama at every stage; it offered Saudi Arabia and Iran, Japan and Costa Rica, Tunisia and South Korea and Australia. An abundance of worries.
Now it will end as always, with Argentina or France, one of the six countries to have won the tournament twice. It will end with huge crowds and history, either Messi’s title or a second in a row for France, who became the first back-to-back champions since Pele’s Brazil in 1962. It will be wonderfully complex and impossibly great. , and yet, at the same time, simple.
“Both teams are playing a better team than they have played so far in the tournament,” Deschamps said. “It’s going to be up to the key players to make a difference. Maybe the team that makes the fewest mistakes. … Whoever does that will win.