By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 15, 2022) US Soccer Players – The 2022 World Cup will conclude with an appealing final on Sunday (10am ET – FOX), a match-up that could turn out to be an instant classic.
Argentina has sometimes resembled a team of destiny in Qatar. Lionel Messi’s fifth, and by his own account final, World Cup has given the Albiceleste a clear sense of purpose as he pursues the trophy that’s repeatedly eluded him. The resulting intensity of feeling among players, coach Lionel Scaloni’s staff, and fans alike has heightened every emotion to fever pitch. That’s created both Hollywood-style drama, particularly after an upset loss to Saudi Arabia in their first match, and a sense of history in the making.
“Sometimes it’s an extreme situation, it’s not easy to go out on to the pitch knowing that you have to win and if not, you’re going home,” said Messi this week. “We have been doing that since the second game. That has a very big mental cost, and the group has overcome that. We have played five ‘finals’ and we have one more.”
France, meanwhile, has faithfully and impressively carried the burden of defending champions. The 2018 winners shook off several injuries to key contributors like Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante, showcasing depth and real resilience on their march back to the final. They’ve been outplayed at times, falling behind to Australia in their opener, taking a shock loss to Tunisia with group-stage advancement already clinched, and suffering for long stretches of Wednesday’s semifinal win over Morocco. Yet France hasn’t trailed in the knockout stages, flashing a winner’s mindset in the clutch. Simply returning to this point is a real achievement, one that World Cup title-holders don’t often attain. It’s a balanced final with no clear favorite and a twin bill of transcendent attackers.
In Kylian Mbappe, Les Bleus has an elite talent on par with his club teammate Messi. With a tournament-leading five goals apiece, Sunday could also determine which of those Paris Saint-Germain players will claim this year’s golden boot. Their faces top most of the marquees for the big game at gilded Lusail Stadium, the most luxurious among Qatar’s glitzy crop of billion-dollar stadiums.
Messi vs. Mbappe is a contrast in greatness, inspiring nations, multitudes of nations, in fact.
Argentines have flocked to the Persian Gulf to witness their hero in person, packing even the priciest of long-haul flights to one of the most expensive destinations in the world amid a global inflation crisis. Back home, the Albiceleste is being watched by amazing numbers of television viewers, with more than 80% of the nation’s population tuning in to their win over Mexico, for example. Meanwhile this tournament’s location outside the traditional power centers of Europe and South America has drawn attention to the full extent of Messi’s celebrity in the Middle East and South Asia. Thousands of those fans have journeyed to Doha in support of Argentina, too.
Mbappe carries the torch for the next generation. A teenage prodigy at Russia 2018, he’s managed to maintain that same steep upward trajectory in the ensuing years. A second straight world title at his age could vault him in the Pele-Maradona-Messi conversation ahead of schedule, marking him as one of the greats, even with so many years left ahead of him. At times, he’s looked unstoppable in Qatar with his rare blend of athleticism, creativity, and daring. Even when aggressively double and triple-teamed, his excellence destabilizes opponents, opening up spaces for his teammates to exploit.
Yet role players have been just as crucial to these teams’ progress. Antoine Griezmann, known mainly as a striker in La Liga, is this World Cup’s runaway leader in expected assists in a deeper deployment. Defenders like Nicolas Otamendi and Raphael Varane are quietly enjoying some of the best form of their careers. Do-it-all central midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Aurelien Tchouameni are supremely skilled but eager to serve the collective first and foremost. That theme continues with strikers Olivier Giroud and Julian Alvarez, who understand the importance of team play.
“Both teams are playing a better team than they’ve played so far in the tournament,” said French manager Didier Deschamps of the final after the win over Morocco. “It will be up to key players to make a difference. Maybe the team who makes fewer mistakes… will win the match.”
We’ve even been treated to a dash of intrigue in the countdown to this game. Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, suffered a thigh injury just before the start of the World Cup. It seemed to rule him out for the duration of the event. But he’s since resumed full training with Real Madrid back in Spain. Rumors of a sensational return to his national team for the cup final have swirled.
Deschamps declined to speak on reports of a Benzema reappearance this week. Will he reward the group that advanced to this point or play a potent ace in the hole? That subplot just adds another intriguing layer to a massive match. Kante, too, casts a shadow even when absent, considering that the Chelsea defensive midfielder was pivotal in stifling Messi when France edged Argentina 4-3 in their last high-profile meeting in the round of 16 four years ago.
A pulsating month of soccer that began with early exits for powers like Belgium, Germany, and Uruguay and continued with upsets of Spain and Brazil will conclude with two of the world’s elite vying for a third star atop their crest. This World Cup has been unlike any other, both for better and for worse. Perhaps it will leave us with a championship game to savor.
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