SINCE THE WORLD CUP FINAL ON SUNDAY, I'VE BEEN RECEIVING CRITIQUES OF SOCCER AND ITS RULES FROM PERCEPTIVE READERS, INCLUDING SPORTS-CENTRIC WRITERS. (See Jim Henneman's post from Baltimore, below):
I'LL TRY TO RESPOND BELOW MY ORIGINAL POST:
You could hear all these superlatives in the babble after Argentina beat France on penalty kicks on Sunday to win the championship.
But don’t take anybody else’s word for it. Ask my wife.
Up to now, Marianne had been sure she attended the best World Cup final ever, in the Stade de France, 1998, when Zinedine Zidane scored two goals as he floated and danced his way through a woozy Ronaldo and the Brazilian defense.
The videos show Zidane at the peak of his profession, but on Sunday the whole world saw two players at their peaks -- Lionel Messi of Argentina and Kylian Mbappé of France, trading goals and both making their penalty kicks in the tie-breaker at the end.
From start to finish, everybody was superlative, even the coaches.
The Argentine coach, Lionel Scaloni, made a great decision in starting the aged playmaker Angel DiMaria, who had missed three previous matches due to a leg injury and his 34 years.
On Sunday, DiMaria came out of the stadium tunnel with the starting unit, and I knew Argentina had a much better chance of winning, which also meant Messi had a much better chance of earning the only honor missing in his long and honorable career as shifty goal-scorer for the ages.
I have always been slightly skeptical of Messi for not winning a World Cup with Argentina whereas he had won titles with the Barcelona club, because of the smooth playmaker Andrés Iniesta, when the two overlapped from 2004 to 2018.
On Sunday, DiMaria, playing the part of Iniesta, had a subtle, smooth control over the flow of the Argentina offense, allowing Messi to infiltrate, free-lance, pass, shoot – worthy of Zidane himself.
Even Marianne – a Francophile – allowed that Messi had reached Zidane level, which just about says it all for us. We were in Paris that day, and they played the French anthem, “La Marseillaise,” which we have known since we were children (in the U.S.) and on that raucous Sunday evening in 1998, French people walked below our rented flat, toward the Champs Elysees, their shoes clattering and their voices chanting “ZEE-dan, ZEE-dan,” to celebrate late into the night.
Sunday’s final involved two glorious teams, and two superstars at their peak, plus two coaches doing everything right.
Messi’s two goals and his penalty kick in the shootout set the tone of the day, but France shared the glory because its coach, Didier Deschamps, had the courage to make two substitutions before the first half was over, hauling off two players who had botched the defense.
Deschamps knows what is needed to win a World Cup. He was the unflappable midfielder, the metronome of the French offense and defense that Sunday in 1998, and now, 24 years later, white-haired, he let his discontent show.
The French perked up immediately, although it took Mbappé until the 80th minute to score two goals.
What a game.
For months, when friends asked me to predict a World Cup winner, I automatically said, well, Mbappé reminds me of young Magic Johnson, when he jumped from Michigan State to the Los Angeles Lakers of professional basketball, bringing his reflexes and suppleness and size and cool to the peak of that sport. To my surprise, he is only 5-10, but on a soccer field he seems 6-4.
Anyway, there was Kylian Mbappé, son of the hard Parisian suburbs, excelling in the world’s sport, hauling France on his solid shoulders.
Surely, world soccer fans know that for most of the soccer season, Mbappé and Messi are teammates on the same French club – Paris St-Germain – owned by Qatari interests.
The two are said to not be best friends on that squad, overloaded with talent and egos, and they surely were on opposite sides on Sunday – the little old star and the large young star – and they spurred each other forward.
("Mbappe and Messi are forces of nature. It's a shame that only one could win. Just amazing. I can't believe how intense that was." --G. Wilson, Pennsylvania.)
The game, 120 official minutes, took it out of the players. DiMaria lasted 64 minutes, and then he came out -- which might explain why France was able to come back.
Both sides gave their bodies, all they had. Late in the match, a French player, Raphael Varane, had to make a belly-whopping landing to tie up an Argentina player near the sideline. He struggled to stand up, but it appeared he had nothing left, and France used up one of its final substitutions.
It was a war of attrition. It was a match of two superstars, with suitable accomplices.
The broadcasters ran out of superlatives.
Was it the greatest World Cup final ever?
My wife – who has been talking about Zidane since 1998 – is willing to say, yes, this final was greater than that final.
Then again, you could check out this highlight film of Zidane in the 1998 final. It's in French. And at the first exquisite pass, you will hear the broadcaster gush: "Ooooh, c'est beau.!" And it was, always will be.
Jim Henneman, my long-time colleague, from Baltimore, has written his own take on the great World Cup final (second highest TV ratings of any 2022 sports event.)