France's World Cup title defense once seemed unlikely. Now, it's near reality
Didier Deschamps kept every controversy at arm’s length in the months leading up to the World Cup.
He knew Kylian Mbappe was at odds with the French Football Federation over the use of his image and boycotting photoshoots with national team sponsors. He knew Paul Pogba’s brother had attempted to extort the midfielder out of millions of dollars, and the head coach of France bristled at the suggestion that Pogba paid a witch doctor to put a hex on Mbappe. He refused to comment on allegations that FFF president Noel Le Graet sexually harassed female employees within the federation, and he did everything to steer clear of criticism of Qatar.
“There is a climate out there that is not serene and calm,” Deschamps told The Athletic’s Amy Lawrence in November, “but all is well.”
Every story threatened to destabilize the French national team ahead of its much-anticipated title defense. It was already a delicate issue: France embarrassed itself in 2002 when it became the first defending World Cup champion to fall in the group stage, and it seemed primed to repeat history. But the 54-year-old skillfully deflected all the negativity around his players, ensuring they flew to Qatar without the toxicity that weighed them down at previous tournaments.
But the blows kept coming. Pogba’s knee injury required surgery. N’Golo Kante’s hamstring gave way. Eduardo Camavinga ended Christopher Nkunku’s World Cup with a flying challenge in training. Karim Benzema suffered his own setback and left for an early vacation. Was it all a sick joke? When Lucas Hernandez tore his ACL within 15 minutes of France’s first game at the World Cup, it sure seemed like it.
Other teams may have succumbed to the torrent of bad news. Not France. This group is within reach of winning back-to-back World Cup titles because it stood by one another when it was easier to point blame.
“There is a collective strength that has been present since the beginning,” Deschamps said after France held off England’s credible comeback attempt in the quarterfinals. “Quality is not enough in this group. There is also the mentality, and perhaps also, to a certain extent, experience.”
Players who expected to sit on the bench suddenly found themselves in the crucible of the World Cup. Adrien Rabiot – who refused to be a reserve four years ago – replaced Pogba in midfield. Theo Hernandez swapped places with his brother and made the left-back position his own. Ibrahima Konate exchanged minutes with Dayot Upamecano in central defense, and when he came in, as he did during Wednesday’s 2-0 semifinal win over Morocco, he carried the confidence of an everyday starter.
Deschamps made sure everyone in his squad felt important. He selected not only the most talented players available to him, but those who genuinely clicked. Even when Benzema ruled himself out of contention, Deschamps doubled down on the team at his disposal, choosing not to call up a replacement. Why would he disrupt the harmony he worked so hard to cultivate?
That vote of confidence gave his players a boost when they needed it. Back home, the French doubted their team’s ability to defend their title, and those suspicions seemed to gain credence when Australia took a shocking 1-0 lead over France in the opening round of the group stage. Even though Les Bleus came back to win 4-1, critics continued to lament their reliance on Mbappe, as if a player of his speed and quality shouldn’t have as much of the ball as possible.
But France kept its head. It kept the boobirds at bay. At times, the team struggled to play the swift counterattacking football that powered its run to the title in 2018, but it made most of its chances count. France didn’t panic after losing an otherwise meaningless game to Tunisia. It kept its composure when England ratcheted up the tempo in the quarterfinals.
On Wednesday, Morocco pushed France to the very limit, showing more ambition with the ball than anyone had expected. But the French kept working for each other. Olivier Giroud took a break from scoring to win possession in midfield. Konate and Raphael Varane dove into tackles with pinpoint accuracy. Antoine Griezmann, France’s handyman, passed out of his own 18-yard box without breaking a sweat.
It’s true that France needed luck to get back to the final. Harry Kane missed a penalty that would’ve forced extra time in that quarterfinal, and the Moroccans were too shy to shoot when everyone was begging them to have a go.
But luck has always played a role in success. France just had to put itself in a position to succeed. That was the hardest part.
Team of the tournament: Best XI at 2022 World Cup
With the 2022 World Cup coming to an end, theScore assembles the competition’s best lineup with the tournament’s top-performing stars.
Emiliano Martinez ??
Whenever Argentina needed him, he was there. That statement is true of Lionel Messi, of course, but it also applies to Martinez, who rescued his team on multiple occasions en route to winning the World Cup. When Australia had a chance to equalize in the last 16, Martinez stood tall. When the Netherlands threatened to complete an improbable comeback in a shootout, Martinez stepped up. And when France had a golden opportunity to rip the title away in the final with almost the last kick of extra time, Martinez was there, making one of the biggest saves in tournament history.
Honorable mention: Dominik Livakovic (Croatia)
Theo Hernandez ??
Hernandez made his World Cup debut when Lucas, his older brother, tore his ACL. Lucas suffered the injury on the play that led to Australia’s shocking opener against France, leaving Theo as the obvious replacement at the left-back position. Theo wasted no time, needing just 14 minutes to set up the equalizer, and spent the rest of that 4-1 win commanding that left flank. Theo consolidated his place in the starting lineup, and after conceding a cheap penalty in the quarterfinals, the AC Milan full-back recovered to score early in the semifinal against Morocco.
Honorable mention: Aziz Behich (Australia)
Josko Gvardiol ??
Gvardiol already reads the game like a grizzled veteran at the age of 20, and his intimidating physicality – he’s broad-shouldered, 6-foot-1, and a fierce competitor – is paired with supreme ability with the ball at his feet. Only France’s Aurelien Tchouameni produced more interceptions at the World Cup than Gvardiol, and the defender ranked third for total passes by a Croatian behind Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric. RB Leipzig were already demanding a huge transfer fee for Gvardiol, but his price tag has skyrocketed courtesy of his authoritative showings in Zlatko Dalic’s backline.
Honorable mention: Nathan Ake (Netherlands)
Nicolas Otamendi ??
Only two outfield players featured in every single minute of Argentina’s victorious World Cup campaign. You can probably guess the first one, but Otamendi likely wouldn’t immediately come to mind as the other. The veteran defender, 34, was ever-present for Lionel Scaloni’s team, anchoring a rugged backline in what was likely his final World Cup. Once a rash and undisciplined player susceptible to glaring mistakes, Otamendi was the most tranquil of Argentina’s defenders in Qatar, trading in wild tackles for well-timed interceptions that helped the Albiceleste get on the front foot.
Honorable mention: Harry Maguire (England)
Achraf Hakimi ??
Hakimi’s lung-busting runs down the right usually draw the most attention, but he was a defensive rock in Qatar. He led the tournament with 26 completed tackles and produced the third-most interceptions by a defender (nine). That’s not to write off his work as unadventurous: He attempted 15 dribbles and was Morocco’s second-most creative player with six key passes. The 24-year-old’s confidence was overflowing as one of Morocco’s main men, and he cheekily downed Spain – where he was born and raised – with a Panenka penalty to conclude the shootout in the round of 16.
Honorable mention: Josip Juranovic (Croatia)
Sofyan Amrabat ??
Morocco asked Amrabat to do a bit of everything, and every time, he delivered. The 26-year-old breathed down the necks of his opponents and negotiated ways out of danger without breaking a sweat. His stock rose further as Morocco beat Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, displaying to a wider audience what many in Italy had already gathered. Rarely putting a foot wrong, the Fiorentina midfielder ended the tournament with just one yellow card to his name, a worthwhile achievement for a player who found himself in the trenches for seven matches.
Honorable mention: Enzo Fernandez (Argentina)
Luka Modric ??
Modric seemed human in the round of 16. With 99 minutes gone in Croatia’s meeting with Japan, the fleet-footed midfielder was clearly fatigued when he was substituted. At 37, that’s to be expected. But from nowhere, Modric found extra energy reserves for the knockout matches against Brazil and Argentina, seeming omnipresent while he swept up defensively and created chances at the other end. In what was likely his last World Cup appearance, the Real Madrid star reminded everybody why he’s one of the greatest midfielders of all time while playing 656 out of a possible 690 minutes.
Honorable mention: Jude Bellingham (England)
Antoine Griezmann ??
When France lost N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba to injury, head coach Didier Deschamps turned to Griezmann. He knew the star center-forward could handle the workload in midfield. Few players have ever been as reliable to a single cause: Griezmann’s played in each of France’s last 73 matches, and he’s filled various roles in the five-and-a-half years since his streak began. France wouldn’t have made as deep of a run in Qatar without Griezmann’s work rate, off-the-ball movement, and defensive awareness.
Honorable mention: Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)
Kylian Mbappe ??
Nobody was more electrifying during the World Cup than Mbappe. France had no business pushing the final against Argentina to extra time, let alone a shootout, but the insatiable forward took it upon himself to will Les Bleus to within a whisker of successive titles. His 97-second brace, even in a losing cause, will live long in the memory. The Golden Boot winner with eight goals, including his remarkable hat-trick in the final, Mbappe has now found the net 12 times in just two tournaments. He turns 24 tomorrow. The men’s all-time World Cup scoring record is in serious jeopardy.
Honorable mention: Richarlison (Brazil)
Julian Alvarez ??
Prior to the World Cup, Alvarez was tipped to blossom into a superstar for Argentina. It just wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly at this tournament. With Lautaro Martinez struggling, the 22-year-old was thrust into the spotlight. He excelled in the role, scoring four goals in five starts and, crucially, doing huge amounts of work off the ball to both win possession back and free up space for his teammates. His youthful zest was vital to Argentina’s success. Messi himself said Alvarez’s impact on the team was “absolutely spectacular.” Looking back now, it’s impossible to picture Argentina without him.
Honorable mention: Olivier Giroud (France)
Lionel Messi ??
Save the best – of the tournament and of all time – for last. Messi dazzled all month long in Qatar, but as the matches grew in significance, his performances followed suit. The Golden Ball winner always rose to the occasion. He got Argentina back on track in the group stage, scored in every knockout round – including twice in the final – and, in the tensest possible moment, his nonchalant penalty helped kick off the shootout against France and calm his team’s jangling nerves. His seven goals were second only to Mbappe, and nobody had more assists. A brilliant artist’s finest work.
Honorable mention: Cody Gakpo (Netherlands)
Even in a World Cup of twists and turns, it came down to Messi and Mbappe
As Sunday’s World Cup final entered the final half hour of regular time, the partisan crowd at Lusail Stadium began to sing ballads. Argentina moved the ball with alarming ease, and 40,000 or so of its compatriots in the stands coronated each pass. “Ole,” they chanted as their heroes completed attempt after attempt. “Ole, ole, ole.”
Up until that final half hour, France had failed to record a single shot on target. It had barely made a foray into Argentina’s penalty area. The flu virus that had afflicted the French in the days before the final seemed to have sapped all of their energy. Argentina’s 2-0 lead seemed as secure as anything ever recorded in history.
Except it wasn’t. The essence of this tournament was about to be revealed.
All it took was a turnover, a hopeful pass forward, and a run-in behind defender Nicolas Otamendi for Randal Kolo Muani, one of France’s speculative substitutes, to win a penalty in the 79th minute. That set into motion the most spectacular game of football ever played in a World Cup final.
Everything changed the moment Kylian Mbappe converted that penalty. Momentum swung violently the other way, and suddenly France seemed like the clear favorite to win. Mbappe equalized 97 seconds later, leaving Argentina wobbling on the canvas. A routine affair became a dog fight.
The World Cup had to end the way it started: amidst absolute chaos. The only thing that stayed on script Sunday was the fact that it went off it. These 28 days in Qatar proved that the best don’t always win, and that moments make champions, not necessarily talent alone. If something could happen, it did.
Saudi Arabia scored twice against Argentina to win a match in which it was expected to score 0.1 goals. Japan overcame 1-0 deficits to defeat both Germany and Spain. Morocco ousted Belgium, Spain, and Portugal with a ragtag ensemble and a coach who’d only taken the reins three months prior. No amount of backroom scheming and tactical planning could legislate for any of that. It just kind of happened.
Didier Deschamps’ team was a case study in improvisation. It started the tournament without six of its starters, including Karim Benzema, who won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s greatest player weeks before kickoff. France needed Harry Kane to miss the second of two penalties to have a chance of advancing from the quarterfinals, and it needed several players, including starters Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano, to recover from a flu bug in time to log significant minutes in the final.
The French also needed Olivier Giroud, for so long considered a liability by his own people, to convert the few chances that fell his way, and they needed Antoine Griezmann, a center-forward by trade, to sacrifice himself in midfield.
But two constants emerged amidst the wreckage. Argentina had Lionel Messi, and France had Mbappe. As the tournament cycled through the rounds, as the teams trudged toward the promised land, these two became more and more integral to this twisting tale. A certain air of invincibility followed them.
Messi and Mbappe were the heavyweights of the competition but also anomalies, putting all the tournament’s unsung heroes back in their place. No matter how close Argentina cut it, Messi always seemed the likeliest to determine its fate. No matter how desperate France had become, Mbappe always seemed to have a solution.
Messi didn’t just score, he created, and he took on defenders like it was 2017, turning Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol – the World Cup’s standout center-back – inside out with the same craftiness that turned Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng into a meme years ago. Mbappe ran like a gazelle, probed for openings, and found space even as multiple defenders descended on him with growling menace. Then, as one does, Mbappe went and scored a hat-trick in the World Cup final. Not even Pele could manage such a feat.
Messi and Mbappe remained fixtures as the World Cup became more and more of a wild card. The most important game of a tournament of seemingly unyielding vagary came down to the sport’s two main characters: the greatest of all time, and the potentially soon-to-be greatest.
Even when things that should’ve happened didn’t actually happen, Messi and Mbappe delivered as expected. Little else went according to plan. No one expected Morocco to fly the flag for Africa or Brazil to lose to Croatia in the quarterfinals. No one suspected a thing when the “oles” broke out Sunday, when Argentina’s traveling contingent swayed in the stands with a 2-0 lead and chanted with absolute glee.
Just as nothing made sense, Messi and Mbappe did. They scored five of the six goals in the final and converted the first of their penalty kicks. They did everything they were supposed to do. And the World Cup of twists and turns had the only ending anyone had ever expected.
3 thoughts from Argentina's win over France in legendary World Cup final
How do we make sense of such bedlam?
Lionel Messi almost led Argentina to World Cup glory in normal time – and then in extra time – but Sunday’s gripping final ended 3-3 after 120 minutes before the South Americans finally edged France on penalties.
Kylian Mbappe notched a hat-trick and struck a successful spot-kick in the shootout, but his clinical and mature display wasn’t enough to earn the superstar his second World Cup winners’ medal.
Here are three takeaways from an unforgettable final to conclude the 2022 World Cup:
Di Maria wreaks havoc
Discussions around Jules Kounde during the tournament indicated the right-back slot was completely alien to him. It seemed an awkward fix – something akin to solving an antique dining table’s wobble with a few soggy beer mats under a leg.
But that wasn’t strictly true given the minutes Kounde spent in that position for Julen Lopetegui at Sevilla and now Xavi at Barcelona. He’s not a novice at full-back. But it is reasonable to suggest he’s significantly better at center-back. In hindsight, perhaps Benjamin Pavard – a more dependable player on the right of a back-four – would have been the better choice in that role.
Angel Di Maria taunted Kounde in the first half. The Frenchman distractedly glanced over at midfield runners while Di Maria jinked his way down the flank and, at one point, desperately dragged the winger down after being beaten. Kounde was overwhelmed – his head muddled by the decisions he faced and his body knotted by the 34-year-old wideman’s footwork. And no one stepped up to help their bewildered teammate.
Kounde was caught in a narrow position for the move that led to Argentina’s penalty. His preoccupation with Argentina’s forward-thinking midfielders and Julian Alvarez meant Di Maria only had Ousmane Dembele to beat, and his chop created the space to carve out a route into the box before Dembele clipped his heels.
Messi made no mistake from 12 yards.
Kounde wasn’t part of France’s attack before Argentina’s second goal, so he should have been well-placed to deal with the Albiceleste’s speedy transition. But Dayot Upamecano was caught high up the pitch while Raphael Varane tried to engage with Messi, forcing Kounde to leave his position and close down goal-bound Alexis Mac Allister. Mac Allister then rolled an inviting pass to an unoccupied Di Maria for one of the finest goals of the 2022 World Cup.
To France’s relief, Di Maria only lasted a little over an hour before being substituted for Marcos Acuna. Di Maria – now a scorer in the finals of the 2008 Olympics, 2021 Copa America, 2022 Finalissima, and the 2022 World Cup – could have helped put the match out of reach if he was fully fit – or just younger.
Messi, Mbappe put on a show
It was unavoidable in the buildup to the final. This was a battle between the master – perhaps the greatest player of all time – and a potential heir to his throne.
And how Messi and Mbappe delivered.
Here are some standout numbers following the superstars’ enthralling performances in a staggering final:
1 – At just 23, Mbappe is the top scorer in World Cup finals history with four goals.
2 – Messi is the second-oldest player to score in a World Cup final at 35 years and 177 days. Sweden’s Nils Liedholm converted against Brazil in the 1958 showpiece at 35 years and 264 days.
3 – Mbappe’s treble made him the second male player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Geoff Hurst previously stood alone with that record thanks to his legendary display in England’s 1966 triumph.
4 – Argentina’s No. 10 scored four penalties in Qatar (excluding the shootout against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals). Only Dutch winger Rob Rensenbrink in 1978 and Portuguese icon Eusebio in 1966 have tucked away that many spot-kicks in a single tournament.
7 – Messi had never scored a World Cup knockout goal until this month. He spread his seven goals at the 2022 edition across the group stage, last-16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final, meaning he’s the first player to score in each round of a single World Cup campaign.
8 – The last time a male player scored eight goals at a single World Cup was in 2002; Mbappe matched Ronaldo’s mark from Brazil’s success two decades ago.
10 – Messi and Mbappe both registered 10 goal involvements at the World Cup: Messi totaled seven goals and three assists, while Mbappe claimed eight strikes and two assists. The last player to reach that mark was Diego Maradona, who scored five and set up five during Argentina’s victorious 1986 campaign.
26 – Messi set a record with his 26th goal across his appearances on football’s biggest stage and his country’s continental competition. Brazil’s Ronaldo previously held the record with 25 goals scored at World Cup and Copa America outings.
100 – Messi’s second strike – and Argentina’s third – was his 100th career goal with his right foot.
A fitting end
Argentina was cruising, tapping the ball around the middle of the park to the soundtrack of “oles” from the crowd. The French players, chasing shadows around Lusail, appeared more tired than the annual debates over whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not.
It seemed to be a procession toward the trophy for the Albiceleste. So – naturally, for this tournament – the scene descended into blissful chaos.
From nowhere, Mbappe scored twice in 97 seconds – a penalty and a stunning lashed volley – to wipe out Argentina’s two-goal advantage by the 81st minute.
It’s impossible to ignore the atrocities that Qatar and FIFA tried to gloss over at this World Cup, including migrant worker deaths and abuses and the abhorrent treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the Gulf state. But it’s also impossible to deny this was a marvelous tournament: There were surprise results -including, of course, Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina – several miraculous tournament runs highlighted by Morocco’s, and many other timeless individual and team performances.
The final kept up appearances. Mbappe’s quick-paced double salvo wasn’t even close to the peak of Sunday’s shock and suspense. Messi thought he’d won it when he scored in the 109th minute, but tears of happiness on the Argentine bench became tears of despair when Mbappe scored from the penalty spot following Gonzalo Montiel’s handball.
Even then, there was more drama to unfold. Randal Kolo Muani was inches from scoring the winner with his head, but that wasn’t his best late chance. The Eintracht Frankfurt forward was one-on-one with Emiliano Martinez in the 123rd minute, but his shot was spectacularly saved by Martinez’s foot; Lautaro Martinez then wastefully headed wide after one last sprint upfield from the Argentines.
It was breathless action to conclude a memorable World Cup, and Montiel’s game-winning penalty in the shootout tied a bow on one of the greatest matches in the old sport’s history.
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