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Lionel Messi brings happy ending to one of football's great stories after World Cup glory - The Warm-Up

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MONDAY’S GREAT STORIES

The meaning of an end

For at least a generation, the men’s World Cup hasn’t really seen spectacular finals. Generally speaking, it’s been an occasion that produced a certain type of nervous tension: compelling, yes, and maybe even enjoyable if you’re into that sort of thing. Two teams trying not to lose a game, one of them just managing it. Fireworks tended to come before and after kickoff.

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Well, we’ve broken that streak now. It turns out that the best way to get something special out of this fixture is for one side to completely fail to show up. Completely. France’s first shot on target was a penalty, given by a drowsy Nicolas Otamendi and scored by Kylian Mbappe. It happened in the 80th minute. Their second came two minutes later, the equaliser, Mbappe channeling Jerry West through Jackie Chan. It’s not how you start games, it’s how you end them.

Except it wasn’t the end, and the momentum continued to slip during overtime. At the time when the final the final whistle sounded, too much had happened for this to turn into a sensible pattern. Think about something for a few seconds and something else will pop up to distract you. Think of Didier Deschamps’ substitutions and you’ll remember Randal Kolo Muani played pretty well, but then Emi Martínez’s late save will catch your eye, followed quickly by the ensuing late chance for Lautaro Martinez. And then you will need to sit down. And then you’ll remember, with a start: hey, didn’t Lionel Messi have a decent game?

There will be hundreds of thousands – millions – of words written about this finale, about this moment, but if you were watching on TV, you really don’t need any of it. It was enough to see the courses of two of the spectators. French President Emmanuel Macron showed up to the final hoping to shake hands, cheer for a tidy French performance on the defensive and get a few shots alongside popular Frenchmen. By the end, he was completely turned around by the dramatic punch and counter punch, and we last saw him chatting desperately in Mbappe’s ear as the striker sat and stared in the air. far. The footballer looked like an overthrown king; the president, frenetic and nervous, had sweated every drop of authority from himself. Football breaks people.

The other man was Angel Di Maria. Every TV director needs a Di María in their life. His first hour of the evening, that short period of playing football, was pretty handy for Argentina. But after that, he became a gift to everyone, the most reliable reaction in the whole stadium. Here he is hiding inside his bib. Here he is trying to eat his bib. Here he swallows tears of anguish, and here he swallows tears of joy. Football breaks people, in defeat and in victory.

And football breaks. We – it’s the great collective mass of everyone who cares even the least about football – have been subjects and subjects in the same story for nearly 20 years, ever since it became clear that that new Maradona, that skinny collection of bends, pegs and angles, was actually the real deal. Will he? Won the? Can he? Why can’t he? And now Messi has won the World Cup and that story, that whole arc, is just over. Alexander wept when there were no more worlds to conquer; football sighs, because it is conquered. We can finally stop living this story, and get down to telling it and telling it again, from here to forever

Lionel Messi and the World Cup trophy

Image credit: Getty Images

The man with the golden glove

Let’s give Emi Martínez her own little section here. There is a great and semi-glorious tradition of goalkeepers clowning around during penalty shootouts, dating back at least to Bruce Grobbelar and his jelly legs. Australia earned their place in Qatar after Andrew Redmayne smashed their way through a shootout against Peru, and now Argentina are champions after Martinez sacrificed dignity to turn up the French nose, and from there in their head.

It’s a rebalancing, a leveling of the playing field. For any penalty, the odds are always in favor of the striker, but they know it, and the goalkeeper knows it, and everyone in the stadium and on television knows it too. And that means the pressure is entirely on the taker. No one would ever miss in lab conditions, but in the moment, after two hours of grueling football, with the world watching, and— Ugh, he threw the ball over there. What [beeeeeeeep].

There’s nothing noble about it, but it seems to work. Distract, annoy, irritate; make an already unpleasant situation even less tolerable. The worst result for the keeper is for the penalty taker to score, and that’s what should happen anyway. But they only need to rattle one or two opponents and it’s worth it. Aurélien Tchouameni had a decent match and an excellent tournament. But when Martinez threw the ball away, we could see his balance dissolving. He was inside the circus and the clown was in charge.

Obviously, the story of the evening is Lionel Messi, as such is the nature of the transcendent brilliance. But Martinez’s path to the final, to his gold medal and his gold glove, is the other kind of football story, one made up of false starts and setbacks. Messi’s path to the World Cup went through Ballon d’Ors and hat-tricks; Martinez arrived in Qatar via Oxford and Rotherham. His first call-up to an Argentine team dates back to 2011; his second in 2019. And all that time on loan, on the bench and sent back to Aston Villa has turned him into one of elite football’s elite. [redacted]s.

World Cup squads are motley things. You need the chosen one, the golden boy, and you need the foot soldiers around him. If Martinez doesn’t come out quickly and hugely at Kolo Muani in added time added to extra time, then Messi can’t finish the football. You need the Ringmaster, and you need the Clown. You need the player who will win the golden ball, and also the boy who will put the golden glove on his crotch and wave it, just because he can.

The other Lionel

Since we’re talking about Messi’s supporting cast and the bizarre journeys they’ve taken so far, let’s briefly reflect on Lionel Scaloni’s extraordinary rise. The right man, in the right place, at the right time: assistant to Jorge Sampaoli, then goalkeeper after his acrimonious departure, then finally appointed in the face of rather fierce opposition, probably because he was the cheapest option. And then: third in his first Copa America, winner of his second, and now World Cup-winning coach.

When a team loses its opening game of a World Cup, the whole tournament swings around it. It becomes a glove, every game a must-win. Pure knockout football. Messi is the inevitable heart of this Argentina side, but Scaloni has changed the form and personnel around him. Each game a new opponent, each game a new plan. A narrow four in midfield to stifle Croatia in the semis, then a surprise comeback for Angel Di Maria and an expansive 4-3-3 to crush the open final.

And what spirit they have! Tossing a two-goal lead feels like sloppiness; throwing two, and yet somehow winning both shots on goal, speaks to an iron at heart. At times, over the decades, Argentina have seemed shrunken in the shadow of Diego Maradona. Talented teams have come to World Cups and crumbled in the moment. Player by player, this is probably the weakest team Argentina have sent to a World Cup since… well, ever? And yet, they are there, kings of the world. The players take credit for it, of course, but the man in the polo shirt deserves his share.

IN OTHER NEWS

The internet currently has 85% videos about celebrating Argentina, and they’re all very funny. But there’s something quite poignant about this one: Messi holding the trophy; everyone, his teammates and coaches and their families and friends and various parasites, parading him around like he was the trophy. They came to the World Cup and they won the biggest prize of all: they won Messi holding the World Cup.

RETRO CORNER

You might remember, or you might have heard in the build-up, that Messi’s international career started with a red card in a friendly against Hungary. But we didn’t really watch it until yesterday. And we’ll call it: soft. Incredible, he didn’t just consider international football bad – hey look, there are Gabor Kiraly’s pants! Sorry, what were we talking about? Look, here is Juan Pablo Sorin’s hair!

HAT TIP

It will probably be some time before we are able to determine how successful this project has been for the Qatari state. Sportswashing can often seem like a pointless exercise, as the annoying headlines pile up, but much of it takes place out of the public eye, behind tinted glass and velvet ropes. And they were lucky in the most important aspect of all: it was a banger of a tournament on the pitch, ending in one of the finest finals.

In any case, there was more going on at this tournament. As David Goldblatt points out in The New York Times, while Europe remains the center of football’s highest performance, the World Cup is becoming an increasingly global affair. And he suggests that despite the criticism, and “sometimes bitter conversations off the pitch”, in the end “Qatar’s position in the world is demonstrably stronger”. He points to the diversity of the crowds in Qatar, “the living heart of the show”. “Pan-Arab and Pan-African solidarity was proudly displayed”, particularly in the global support for Morocco’s march towards the semi-finals. On the other hand, the European contingents have “for the most part been small and relatively restricted”.

Ultimately, he suggests, “It’s been the most scrutinized and culturally contested World Cup ever, and that’s a good thing. The personal, cultural and political presence of the countries of the South has been made tangible and this too is important. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the tournament will be a global media and public more aware of the political and cultural significance of the spectacle? That, at least, is worth celebrating.”

COMING

Now that the supporting acts are over, it’s time for the main event: Wigan Athletic v Sheffield United in the Championship. Wait! To come back!

Andi Thomas will be back tomorrow. Join him.

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