Argentina were crowned World Champions in the Lusail Stadium on Sunday in what was a definite favourite for game of this tournament and arguably the best World Cup final of all time.
A final in which they managed and controlled in a pretty impressive manner for the best part of an hour, then somehow got steady on their feet again after France came to life and lifted the trophy after dominating a second penalty shootout of the competition.
It was an exhausting final, they suffered as they are meant to do, yet maintained calm in the most clutch moments and prevailed in the most pressurised possible culmination to the tournament.
Many people’s pre-tournament favourites, they absolutely got there in the end, but it was eventful, unhinged at times but they found a way. What occurred in tournament after they suffered that opening round defeat to Saudi Arabia to ensure that we the people saw Lionel Messi lift the World Cup at his fifth time of asking?
Embracing the emotion
On Saturday the day before the final, there were two interviews on Argentine tv with Lionel Scaloni, 44-year-old head coach of Argentina. One of them was with a friend back in his village of Pujato in Argentina at the local school where students interacted with Scaloni in Qatar. It is a lovely video, being wished all the best from his people, it was emotional and Scaloni finished up crying.
About two hours later I came across an interview with Sofía Martínez, an Argentine reporter, in which she asks Scaloni for a final message from him to the supporters. Scaloni responds that the people of Argentina should be proud of the squad of players regardless of how the game plays out tomorrow, I’m paraphrasing. Tears at the end of this video too.
Both lovely exchanges, but I’m thinking it’s a day out from the World Cup final, the manager is openly crying whenever the microphone is put in front of him, where is the calm? Will this emotion have an effect on them tomorrow?
Nowadays in top level sports, the phenomenon of sports psychology, ‘controlling the controllables’, having ‘ice in your veins’ and a vast range of strategies or mantras is as much a part of the process of winning athletes and teams as physical preparation. That’s what we are told and there are numerous examples where top-level psychologists are part of successful management teams proving this to be the case.
On Sunday, Angel Di María, the 34-year-old attacker, gave one of the all-time great World Cup final performances, an assist, and a goal, he was influential throughout. Di María is a big game player, leading Real Madrid back into contention in the 2014 Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid in Lisbon, the goalscorer and match winner in the Copa America final against Brazil last year. He was in tears celebrating his goal in the 36th minute and was yoyoing between elation and despair from when he was substituted around the hour mark until the game was won.
Images of Pablo Aimar, a member of the backroom team flanked by Scaloni and Walter Samuel trying to regulate his breathing towards the end of the Mexico game, another example of the emotion, stress, and suffering that they took on this tournament.
Scaloni quería a Romero en cancha con línea de 5, Aimar no podía ni hablar por su emoción y Samuel claramente buscaba otra cosa distinta.
“CUTI ES, CUTI ES. SALE FIDEO”, se impone el DT. Hermosa secuencia del cuerpo técnico argentino 🇦🇷pic.twitter.com/DKKWUQKWGr
— Pablo Noya (@PablitoNoya) November 27, 2022
What perhaps endears a lot of neutrals to Argentina and their journey is the fact they are being authentic and absolutely true to themselves, sometimes up and other times down, not trying to emulate others. They have their own way of going about their business and who can question it, world champions for the third time.
Argentina had Papu Gomez, Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul and Angel Di María in midfield against Saudi Arabía when they lost the first game of the tournament. Enzo Fernandez, of Benfica, who ended up Young Player of the Tournament replaced Paredes for the last half an hour and came on again to score the second goal against Mexico. Alexis MacAllister from the Mexico game and Fernandez with a steadily improving De Paul were key players in winning the tournament.
Scaloni and his management team changed formations to suit the opposition using Lisandro Martinez in a back five against the Netherlands and switching to four in midfield against Croatia in the semi final with Paredes as an extra body in order to make it difficult for Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic to control the game like they had been doing.
Julian Alvarez replacing Lautaro Martinez as number nine also gave impetus to the Argentine attack through his sheer hard work, running behind the opposition defence and opening up space for Messi to meander into where he does his best work.
It’s well documented that Scaloni is a novice manager but he and his management team found solutions. Did they err in replacing Di María when they did in the final? Maybe, but the final was his first start since the final group game against Poland. Perhaps he emptied himself and had no more to give.
It’s often repeated in sports that a sign of team or a player’s character is how they respond to a setback, how they respond in times of difficulty. The opening day defeat to Saudi Arabia was a sucker punch and for a large part of the Mexico game they were struggling badly.
Guido Rodriguez started in the middle of a three in midfield, was dropping very deep and they could not play through the lines, they were starting choke up.
Enzo Fernandez replaced Rodriguez on 56 minutes, Messi skidded the ball past Guillermo Ochoa on 63 minutes, the tension was eased, and Argentina started to play more fluidly. And exhale.
The Netherlands drawing the game in the 100th minute of the quarter final with last kick of the game was a heavy blow. But they finished extra time the strongest that game, Fernandez having a shot deflected out for a corner and hitting the butt of the post at the death. They had wrestled momentum back going into the shootout.
We all know how the final played out, the two Kylian Mbappé goals had the game tied approaching full time. Again though, Argentina were the team pushing for the winner, Hugo Lloris pushing Messi’s drive over for a corner just before the end of full time. relentless.
Messi puts them ahead in extra time and another penalty has France level again. But they went again, both did to be fair at that stage, Emi Martinez getting his outstretched leg to Randal Kolo Muani’s half volleyed effort and at the very end of extra time, Lautaro Martinez got his body shape all wrong when he had the chance to head the winner for La Albicleste.
Again, in the shootout, Argentina took really decisive penalties.
After Mbappé scored the first, where interestingly Martinez seemed quite muted, calm, respectful, whatever you want to call it, once Messi rolled the ball past Lloris, Argentina were moving again.
Martinez started to come up, he was on the balls of his feet, letting himself go, pushing the boundaries and doing his thing. Messi led the call and his teammates responded.
Lionel Messi finished the World Cup with seven goals and three assists. His pass to Julian Alvarez with the outside of his left foot unlocked France for Alvarez to release Alexis MacAllister who squared to Di María who hopped the ball over the French keeper table tennis style for one of the great World Cup final goals. But it was that Messi flick that opened up everything. Two defenders absolutely taken out through awareness and freaky levels of ability.
Lots of work to do from there to Di María’s finish but it was on once Alvarez received possession.
Messi is like that now, no real blinding or even decent levels of pace, but it’s the positions he takes up, his awareness of what is happening around him, the dropping of the shoulder which still has elite opponents flailing, the man is still key.
Was Sunday one of his best performances? Everyone will have an opinion on that, but he was really good, he was relentless.
He set his side on their way with the first goal and was composer of the second, bundled home the third and absolutely set the tone by sidefooting Argentina’s first penalty past Lloris to level Mbappés penalty. It was Messi who was turned over by Kingsley Coman in the lead up to Mbappés equaliser. Perhaps he was trying to take the sting out of the game, bring calm to proceedings but the mistake was on him.
But he finished strong, having a shot saved at the end of full time, scoring in extra time and setting up Lautaro Martinez in the second half of extra time only for Dayot Upamecano to block, with one of his trademark give and go routines at the edge of the penalty area.
Watching Messi play football is like watching children play football in a playground at school. The bell has gone, we’ve a science exam, can’t be late. Pass me the ball lads, we’ll put this thing to bed. They pass him the ball; he gets it done. More often than not he gets it done.
In this tournament he did it when he was needed the most. A leader, Argentina’s captain in what has been Argentina’s year.