Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and a once-in-a-generation World Cup final

The rollercoaster battle between Argentina and France in Qatar produced one of the all-time great football matches

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Matches like the 2022 World Cup final are what make the planet’s favourite sport so addictive. “I love football,” said the hero of a fabulous game and the most watchable player of the 21st century. His Argentina side had, at last, lifted the trophy he spent a glittering career chasing.

“I want a few more games as a world champion,” added Lionel Messi, overcome with second thoughts about previous declarations that he would step back from international football once the tournament was over.

His beaming manager, Lionel Scaloni, celebrating his own rollercoaster rise from novice to admired alchemist of an Argentina concocted from callow youngsters, ageing warriors and a single genius, went further. He will not say farewell to his captain willingly. Messi, who will turn 39 soon after the 2026 World Cup begins, has a place “reserved” for him there if he chooses, promised Scaloni.

Didier Deschamps, France’s losing manager will also be welcome to patrol the touchlines of North America at the next World Cup if the boss of the French Football Federation, Noel le Graet, has his wish. Deschamps’s longed-for Treble – after World Cup-winning captain in 1998, victorious manager in 2018 – slipped tantalisingly away in a penalty shoot-out. But the possibility that it has merely been postponed is alive.

Seldom has Deschamps looked so hassled and animated as he did over the first hour of Sunday’s epic ebb-and-flow, and then through a double French comeback, first from 2-0 down, and then from 3-2 in arrears.

Yet for all the stress – and even a physical injury: Deschamps hurt his thumb in some sort of impact with an object so badly during half-time he needed a bandage – France’s coach is hooked on the adrenalin of nights like these. “I’ll have a meeting in the new year,” said Deschamps of whether he stays on in a job he has done for more than a decade. It is his to extend if he wishes.

France manager Didier Deschamps goes through the emotions during the World Cup final. AFP

The temptations are many. France made a poor start to the final, Deschamps second-best to Scaloni. But France had also had a wretched lead-in to their defence of the title, injuries to Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Lucas Hernandez and Christopher Nkunku testing the reactive instincts of Deschamps and presenting him with fresh, stimulating challenges.

He passed most of them. France may have lost the final on the tiebreaker shoot-out, but in the second of the two gripping hours of open play, he acted skilfully. France’s substitutions made an impact, and like Scaloni, Deschamps watched his superstar, three-goal Kylian Mbappe, respond to the mounting pressure.

By the end of the night, Deschamps had been presented with more evidence that a France national coach fishes in a wonderfully deep pool of emerging talent. Mbappe and his other game-changers, the substitutes used on the night, will all be still in their 20s when the next World Cup begins.

Players who now have fewer than 10 caps to their names are shaping up as fine support-acts for Mbappe. The last month has been quite an adventure for the likes of Randal Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram, drafted in as late World Cup reserves, but central to the drama at the Lusail.

What France came up against was an Argentinian support-act equally worthy of Messi’s greatness. It was made up of the young and rapidly-promoted, such as Alexis Mac Allister, Julio Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez, and vital older allies like Angel Di Maria, 34.

Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni after winning the World Cup. Getty

Di Maria, picked to start after a tournament hampered by injury, earned the penalty for Messi’s opening goal, and, in a throwback to the distant past, provided the finish to a move initiated by Messi’s skillful use of the ball while on the turn. Precisely those elements, and those two players, won Argentina the Olympic gold medal in 2008 in Beijing.

Last summer in Rio de Janeiro, a Di Maria goal earned the Argentina of Messi their only Copa America title. Messi is may have been king of these spread-out successes, but Di Maria is his everlasting lucky charm.

In as little as ten days time, Mbappe and Messi will be together again in the capital of France, teammates fully expecting to win another French league title with Paris Saint-Germain, aiming for a Champions League success, as the club season abruptly imposes itself back on a calendar into which a winter World Cup was squeezed.

The unorthodox timing of the event turned out not to be a rude interruption. Qatar 2022 provided a higher quality of games overall than its predecessor. It had a higher ratio of the unpredictable – in Morocco’s stylish progress, in Japan’s ambushes on so-called heavyweight nations – but also emphasised the sharp differences between elite club football and its international cousin.

Argentina beat France in World Cup final: Player ratings

The elaborately-practicised drills and choreographed pressing that characterise so many successful club teams are conspicuous for their rarity in country-versus-country football. There, coaches have their players on site for so little time that such detailed rehearsal is impossible. In international football, you cannot reach for the chequebook and simply buy the best-fit player to suit a tactical plan.

The most polished, monied club teams will always have a slickness in their work that a national coach envies. But there are compensations. Messi may have been adored in Barcelona most of his working life, but the love of all of Argentina is felt more powerfully. Deschamps appreciates, even in defeat, that managing a gifted national team gives him a level of passionate support no other job can.

He also knows that whoever manages France at the next World Cup will have the blessing of a 27-year-old Mbappe. He must suspect, too, that even if Messi is still active, into his 40th year, a coronation like Sunday’s is unrepeatable. It will probably take a generation, at least, for another World Cup final as marvellous as that.

Updated: December 19, 2022, 4:30 PM