And then there were two! After one of the least predictable World Cups of all-time, we now have a final that won’t surprise anyone – and what a final it should be.
Fear not, the Briefing knows its history and is extremely aware of how foolish a comment that is – and yet, and yet, and yet. In their semi-finals, both Argentina and France came up against teams with nous and organization, but both found a way to impose their class while showing sufficient defensive perviousness to excite each other for the final.
The array of offensive talent, though, is only part of what makes Sunday’s showcase so theoretically appealing. Ultimately, sport is a story, stories stir the human psyche like nothing else, and this is a game leaden with narratives and meaning; with characters and themes.
Argentina, already Copa América champions, are seeking to establish themselves as the finest international team on the planet. And should they win on Sunday, they will leave behind France and Uruguay, who sit on two World Cups, to tuck in behind Germany and Italy who have four, and Brazil, leading the way with five, as football’s, fourth, er, ‘ most winningest nation. That’s one thing.
But the other thing – a thing that’s preoccupied us for the best part of a generation and has, to a significant extent, defined this competition – is whether it will have the honor of being won by Lionel Messi. Whether he is the greatest player ever depends on your criteria – to the Briefing’s mind Messi lacks the dangerous, intoxicating charisma of Diego Maradona at Mexico ’86, where he played association football better than anyone before or since. But when it comes to sustained hand-over-mouth disbelief and involuntary shrieking of biological impossibilities, he’s so far removed from everyone else it’s hard not to wonder if he even exists. If Maradona did it like the devil, Messi plays like God.
France, meanwhile, are seeking pure glory, and a place among the gallery of the immortals. Not since Brazil in 1962 has the most significant trophy in football been retained, and should they become the first side to achieve the feat in the modern era, they will rival both their own country’s achievement of taking the 1998 World Cup followed by Euro 2000, and Spain’s in harvesting three consecutive titles – two European Championships and one World Cup – between 2008 and 2012.
Like Argentina, they too have a player seeking what should be crowning glory of his career, aged just 23, Kylian Mbappé will be planning on winning another and another and another. Not since Maradona has there been a player of such inestimable confidence – of such justifiable certainty in the ridiculous uniqueness of his own ability – and he will expect to be the final’s decisive figure. But unlike Maradona, who was all bouncing edge, and Messi, still a shuffling, unassuming magician, Mbappé is playful, childlike; and no less a killer, a footballing angel of death.
However, Argentina and France have reached this stage not because they have the best players – although they do – but because they are the best teams, and reducing a match with so many aspects to Messi v Mbappé is foolish – almost as foolish as predicting a classic. But that’s football for you. Bring it on! DH
Morocco fell short but they have been a credit
Walid Regragui could not resist the temptation to risk those who had taken Morocco to the brink of history. But adrenaline and a sense of occasion proved no substitute for physical readiness. Nayef Aguerd could not even make it past the warmup, Romain Saïss signaled his thigh could not sustain him once he was burned off by Olivier Giroud. Noussair Mazraoui did not survive past half-time. All three had been on the doubtful list. Perhaps Regragui might have shown more faith in the depth of his squad. Once rejigged into a 4-3-3, Morocco matched France to have the defending champions looking to the clock and referee for respite. Sofyan Amrabat excelled in midfield, just like against Spain and Portugal. He has been a star, just as his team’s run to the last four has been the most welcome story from Qatar’s World Cup. JB
Argentina fans add authenticity in Qatar
To those out in Qatar, the sense of jamboree found in previous World Cups has been somewhat absent. That’s perhaps a byproduct of holding a tournament in a super-city constructed in the middle of a desert, an infrastructure built for the automobile rather than pedestrian. It is also suggested that the cost of accommodation has been deliberately prohibitive to prevent the flood of humanity that usually swells the population of host cities. Morocco and Saudi Arabia, as Arab nations, have bucked that trend, as has Argentina. The South Americans always travel in huge numbers, doing so amid disappointment in Russia four years ago and with Rio turning into an Argentine enclave prior to the 2014 final against Germany. While questions continue to be raised about just how full stadiums have been, Argentina’s wash of blue and white has added authenticity to the tournament, as do those lengthy, wordy terrace anthems their fans perform. JB
It has been revealed that Friday’s quarter-final between the Netherlands and Argentina was the scene of a further tragedy to accompany the loss of Grant Wahl. On the day Wahl’s family announced an autopsy revealed an aortic aneurysm was the cause of the celebrated journalist’s sudden death, it was revealed a Kenyan migrant worker, 24-year-old John Njue Kibue, died while working as a security guard.
Kibue fell from the eighth storey of the Lusail Stadium before dying after three days in intensive care, a witness told the Guardian that Kibue had fallen from the highest point of the concourse close to gate 30 of the stadium. “Qatar’s tournament organizers are investigating the circumstances leading to the fall as a matter of urgency,” read a statement from Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.
Anne Wanjiru, Kibue’s sister, told the Standard newspaper in Nairobi that help and an explanation are yet to be forthcoming from either the Qatari authorities or Fifa. “We want answers on the circumstances of his death,” she said. “They are claiming he was intoxicated. We hear he had worked for long hours. The clarity of how he fell is not coming out.” JB
Novi list made much of Novak Djokovic sending his congratulations to Croatia on Instagram, while it was good to see that the English media does not have a monopoly on bemoaning refereeing decisions in the wake of an untimely exit. Jutarnji list described Italian referee Daniele Orsato’s decision to award a spot kick to Argentina as “the penalty that divided the whole world”.
Antonio Juricic, the web sports editor at Slobodna Dalmacija, was having none of it. “Let’s concentrate on the bronze, and not on the fact that we were victims again. Because we are not,” he said in a piece which also argued that “there is nothing wrong with the fact that you lost playing the kind of football that brought you to the semi-finals of the World Cup, and there is no point in spreading negativity”.
Reaction in Argentina was, of course, rather different. In the Buenos Aires Times, Dan Edwards asked: “who would bet against Argentina now?” Edwards added: “against all expectations Lionel Scaloni turned out to be an inspired choice, carrying out Argentina’s much-needed regeneration with minimal pain and forging a team abundant in both individual talent and collective spirit.”
Among the celebrations there was a bit of defensiveness. La Nación devoted a whole column by Juan Manuel Trenado that attempted to refute the notion that Argentina had been favored by refereeing decisions throughout the tournament. Trenado said that “the 10 minutes of added time that Mateu Lahoz gave and that allowed the Netherlands to draw”, among other things, showed Fifa was not guiding Argentina into the final. Clarín put it simplest of all on their sports pages with the headline: “For the third World Cup”. MB
The internet reacts
This pitchside view of Lionel Messi only makes you have even more sympathy for young Josko Gvardiol. GB
Football has changed a lot over the decades, but an eternal pleasure is that – unlike many other team sports – quality is not directly proportional to athleticism and physicality. For that reason the schemer exists and, although contemporary footballing vernacular has moved on there will always be a place in the game for a deft, cunning, lithe, tough, little kid who sees things that others don’t, directing the big kids around the pitch according to their whims. There have been few as scheming as Luka Modric who, at 37, is coming to the end of his World Cup career. Not only a great of his generation but a great of the game, Modric is near-enough the perfect midfielder, the brains and heart behind Croatia’s stunning consistency; Saturday’s third-place playoff is an opportunity for us to appreciate him while we still can. DH