AL KHOR, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup began amid controversy with chaos. It started here at the Al Bayt Stadium with a night all about Qatar, then quickly turned upside down. It pushed Argentina to the brink after less than 48 hours, and soon discarded Belgium and Germany. It continued, all the way to the semifinals, with Morocco and Croatia — and that, on Tuesday and Wednesday, at the feet of two giants, is where it ended.
That’s where chaos gave way to order.
And that’s where cute, inspiring underdog tales gave way to a clash of the titans.
It will be Argentina versus France, Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappé, after the French held off Morocco on Wednesday. It will be a dream final in a futuristic from-scratch city at a cavernous stadium rising out of the desert. It all still feels a bit strange and cringey, a bit uncomfortable and morally complicated, but my goodness, it will be overflowing with sumptuous narratives. It seems almost incapable of disappointing.
It will be a battle of continents and vibes and generations. Either a torch will be passed, from a GOAT to the first potential challenger for his throne; now the GOAT will be christened. Mbappé, who has accomplished more before the age of 24 than perhaps anyone since Pelé, is well on his way to “all the records,” as French teammates and coaches have said, but Argentina can put them on hold.
The 23-year-old French prince didn’t score in Wednesday’s semifinal, but in moments, in strings of mere seconds, he showed why he is so feared. He powered past Moroccan defenders without the ball. He also collected it, pushed it past them, and toggled on his turbo jets. He even channeled Messi’s sorcerous dribbling to set up France’s second goal.
For all the inevitable talk about individuals, though, about arguably the two most talented soccer players on the planet, this will be team against team, unit against unit, sharp young coach against sharp World Cup-winning coach.
“There is not only Messi in that team, eh,” French striker Olivier Giroud said Wednesday. “They’ve got great players who work for the team as well.”
Four years ago, when these two teams met in the Round of 16, it was only Messi — which of course is an exaggeration, but surrounding him was an Argentine mess. The French remember that game; head coach Didier Deschamps remembers how Messi surprisingly played as something of a striker; Giroud remembers how N’Golo Kanté, the always-everywhere French midfielder, “was all the game, on [Messi’s] back.”
But “four years ago, things were different, of course,” Deschamps said. Four years later, Messi is rejuvenated and redeployed in a more suitable role.
“Messi has been in scintillating form since the beginning of the tournament,” Deschamps said.
“Any team with Messi in it is a totally different proposition,” said French attacker Antoine Griezmann — who, along with teammates, has been following Argentina throughout the tournament.
“I mean, he’s an incredible player,” Giroud said. “But we’re not gonna let him enjoy the best night he can have. We want to win this game, we want to win another World Cup. And we’ll try everything to stop him.”
And while they don’t have Kante, nor Paul Pogba, nor a host of 2018-present regulars who’ve been felled by injury, they have a near-ideal blend of kids and vets. They have Aurelien Tchouameni, a majestic, multi-talented midfielder playing somewhat in place of Kante. And they have 2018 winners to help guide him and the other World Cup first-timers.
Griezmann remembers crying four years ago after taking down Belgium in those semis. “And I think now, I’m more focused,” he said Wednesday after these semis. “I’m already focusing on the final on Sunday. I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground.”
What they also might have, unfortunately, is a spreading virus. Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Umpemecano, starters in midfield and defense respectively, missed the game against Morocco while battling flu-like symptoms. Deschamps hinted that Kingsley Coman was also feeling unwell.
“We are taking all the precautions, we’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t spread,” he said. Rabiot stayed back at the team hotel rather than traveling to Wednesday’s game. “But viruses, of course, are infectious,” he added.
France, though, has sufficient depth to weather an outbreak. Argentina has plenty too. Together, they have all the ingredients to concoct a final for the ages, the most memorable of the 21st century.
The tournament as a whole has been memorable, too. The controversy has not and will not disappear; it will taint the legacy of the event. But the soccer, in a vacuum, has thrilled. It presented drama at every stage; it offered up Saudi Arabia and Iran, Japan and Costa Rica, Tunisia and South Korea and Australia. Upsets galore.
Now it will end as it always does, with either Argentina or France, one of the six nations who’ve won the tournament twice. It will end with a gargantuan audience and with history, either a title for Messi or a second in succession for France, who’d become the first back-to-back champions since Pelé’s Brazil in 1962. It will be wonderfully complex and impossibly magnificent , and yet, at the same time, simple.
“Both teams are playing a better team than they’ve played so far in the tournament,” Deschamps said. “It will be up to key players to make a difference. Maybe a team that makes fewer mistakes. … Whoever manages to do that will win the match.”