The sound was deafening and grew louder with every step. The brave French players who made the lonely walk to the penalty spot were met by a wall of whistles and boos, and yet it was more than that: this was an animal howl of a sound, a piercing shriek that forced the French to pay attention . , to feel the anger in the air.
Kylian Mbappe ignored it – he had already scored two penalties and a hat-trick and now he was not going to miss: 1-0. It rained down on Kingsley Coman like a storm, and it didn’t stop until he was repelled at the hands of Emi Martinez. 1-1. Then came Aurelien Tchouameni, and your stomach clenched for a 22-year-old in his first World Cup, because there was no empathy where he went.
When he got there, Martinez began some great sh**housery, throwing the ball in the other direction to stretch the moment, or perhaps assert his power. He dived the wrong way, but Tchouameni was upset and missed the target. 2-1. The screams fell on Randal Kolo Muani, but he held his nerve. 3-2. But then the anger melted away and turned into hope. Gonzalo Montiel strode forward, rolled the ball into the bottom corner and that was it.
No one remembers the entire World Cup final, even if they lived through it; once the final whistle blows, it’s impossible to move every ebb and flow of the game in our minds.
Instead, we’re left with a kaleidoscope of stills: Angel Di Maria putting Ousmane Dembele in crisis; Nicolas Otamendi clattering into Kolo Muani’s legs; Mbappé drives off; Messi’s arms up; Mbappé drives away again. Then came Martinez’s save and Montiel’s goal.
In the hours before kick-off, the hot air had crackled with anticipation. The road from Doha to Lusail was choked with traffic and the state-of-the-art metro rail ground to a halt under the weight of thousands of floods to the stadium and to the giant fan park a few stops away. This World Cup still needed its final game, its lasting image, and over the course of this fantasy final – Argentina against France, Messi against Mbappé – they were sure to get it. As it turns out, they got every image they could imagine.
But the turning point, the moment when you knew this was going to be Argentina’s trophy, was not. At the end of extra time, Hugo Lloris won the toss and he chose France to take the first penalty. It was the statistically sound choice; the team that shoots first wins more often than they lose.
But it meant Messi got to choose the ending they caught them on, and he chose Argentine wrath. Once the crowd on that side understood, their response was triumphant, and as Lloris walked to his spot along the sideline, he might have thought this was a mistake.
Four hours earlier, the magnitude of the difference in support between the two teams quickly became apparent. Thousands of Argentinian fans had come to witness history making this a home game in all but geography. There was hardly a French shirt or tricolor flag to be seen: not along the Lusail Boulevard supposedly designed on the Champs-Elysées, nor along the wide aisles around this giant soup bowl of a stadium.
Inside, a few thousand French fans lined up behind one goal, but the rest of the stadium was filled with Argentina’s stripes, interrupted only here and there by a bright white group of men wearing the traditional thaw.
It was clear that the stadium was more than a venue – it was a support vessel for Argentina, a cauldron in which to realize Messi’s destiny. Argentina came here with defeat on their record, navigating a tricky penalty shootout against the Dutch, a lot more jerky than the French.
But they had tremendous will, and to use a football cliché – oddly enough for a World Cup final – for much of this game felt like they wanted it more.
Their motivation was not to win Argentina’s third World Cup, but to win Messi’s first, his only one. When they won the 2021 Copa America after so many failures, Angel Di Maria had scored the winning goal and Martinez had made crucial saves, but as soon as the whistle blew they all ran for Messi.
Perhaps there was some desperation in that: this was a nation that had not always appreciated Messi, but that has begun to understand what it has; what it had.
And so it wasn’t that Argentina didn’t want to lose, but that they simply couldn’t. There were times here when it felt like they would, as Mbappé’s second goal rippled over the net and their breath was sucked out of them, on the pitch and in the stands. Or when the referee pointed to the spot in extra time and the stadium fell silent all night, the fans were shocked.
But before the shootout started, when the referee pointed towards the goal surrounded by Argentinian flags, that moment they knew it was done.