LUSAIL, Qatar — Occasionally, a game will wriggle out of its standard definition and start taking on certain human characteristics. It will defy assumption after assumption, dazzle and dumbfound, stun and stir, swerve and swerve back almost as if cackling. It will soar off into some life of its own — uncommonly alive and maybe even delighted by its own caprice.
Then sometimes, as with this festival of endorphins of a World Cup final between Argentina and France on Sunday night in an outlandish din at Lusail Stadium, it will pull a trick the rest of the world can’t: It will go ahead and prove immediately deathless.
That’s where this one heads now as the billion or so who watched begin the hard art of processing how Argentina and its 35-year-old global hero, Lionel Messi, edged France and its 23-year-old global hero, Kylian Mbappé, 4-2 on penalty kicks after an unreal 3-3 draw. They can try to recollect the ride on which this thing took many of the 46 million Argentines and the 67 million French and much of the rest of the world, from 2-0 Argentina after 79 minutes to 2-2 after 90 to 3-2 Argentina after 108 to 3-3 after 120 to the penalties. Here this whole episode goes, breathing on into the future.
In cafes and hair shops and pubs and classrooms and dens, people can talk forever about a night in which one manager, Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni, said, “The match was completely insane,” while the other, France’s Didier Deschamps, said, “We managed to come back from the dead.”
On this goes toward June 2026, when the next men’s World Cup will begin in the United States, Mexico and Canada. That event will occur in a gigantic space after this one happened in a little thumb of a country, but how about that 2022 final? That event figures to lack Messi but glow with the near-dynasty of France, which has a fine slew of young stars — but, hey, how about that 2022 final? How close the French were to making 2026 their search for an unprecedented third straight World Cup title, but, also, how about that 2022 final?
Far-flung people might not even pinpoint where it happened, which will relieve those who wished it hadn’t happened here, with its controversial host of both charms and misgivings.
The people can talk about how Messi got the trophy and the distinction he chased through five World Cups just before the curtain was set to drop on that chase. They can talk about how Mbappé turned the match into one of those occasions that flatters the loser just as much as the winner, elevating his own blossoming image as somebody who makes the ground shake, who became the first man to score three goals in a World Cup final since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966 and whose tying goal in the 81st minute might rate the utmost memory in this barrage of astonishment.
“He can change a match in just a moment,” Deschamps said earlier in the event, while France overcame a jarring amount of injuries to become the first defending champion to grace the ensuing final since Brazil in 1998. Now, the wild closing moments had closed, and Deschamps was saying: “Kylian has really left his mark on this final. Unfortunately he didn’t leave it in the way he would have liked, and that’s why he was so disappointed.”
The disappointment in that face will carry on in our memory, too. That face told so much of the whole thing.
Some — those in the Northern Hemisphere, for example — might marvel at how in 120+3, that rarefied third minute of extra-time stoppage time, Mbappé looked keen to carry the whole thing over the line himself, with an outrageous move through defenders on the left side and into the box.
Others — those in the Southern Hemisphere, for example — might remember that just before something even bigger than the rest might have happened, an Argentine substitute, Paulo Dybala, poked the ball away.
Among the geeks, there might be talk of the nifty managerial decisions, such as Scaloni’s start of 34-year-old Ángel Di María, who haunted the French from the left side early, caused a penalty after which Messi scored and converted himself not much later. Or perhaps they will talk about France’s substitutions in the 41st minute, which brought in the outstanding energy of Randal Kolo Muani, still just 24, and Marcus Thuram, still just 25. The talkers might note how the game managed to incorporate a shred of justice as Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel — whose playing of the ball with his arm in the 118th minute brought a penalty and an Mbappé tying goal and postponed a win 10 minutes after Messi had scored and appeared as if he had just gotten one — wound up clinching that win with the final penalty kick.
Some will remember some of the threats and scares in the back-and-forth of extra time. Some will remember others.
On the streets of Argentine cities, those in the crowd will remember how they ran onto the streets of Argentine cities, having waited 36 years to run onto the streets of Argentine cities. “Well, this is way too much,” Scaloni said of having helped give that to Argentines in a harsh economic moment. He added, “Our problems are not going anywhere; however, they will be just a little bit happier, and that’s great.”
But mostly, the people of a planet long since gone mad for this sport will remember how the evening finally tilted to Messi, whose name has long appeared on the backs of shirts all over the world. They will remember how he went over toward his family and the Argentina fans who made so much noise that it almost seemed audible some 8,300 miles away in Buenos Aires. They will remember how he looked, how his hard hunt for international cups wound up glorious in the Copa América in 2021 and the World Cup in 2022: the former before a near-empty stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the latter before 88,966 in a newborn stadium excellent at hanging on to its noise — the same stadium where Argentina started here last month in great noise from the other side during a stunning 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia.
It’s a funny planet that wishes peace of mind upon a global citizen worth hundreds of millions and visible on billboards all over the various continents. Yet that’s what the world wished to see upon Messi’s familiar face after all these years of wizardry, and that’s what the world wound up seeing after a match that spun into its own unforgettable life.
World Cup in Qatar
World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.
Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.