Andrea Canales: Best World Cup Final ever? Why or why not?

Jonathan Tannenwald: I’m not old enough to feel qualified to judge this the best final ever. I was two years old in 1986, which many people had at the top of their rankings for men’s finals before today; and I didn’t start following the sport in the first place until 1998.

If we are also including women’s finals — I can see the emails coming now — the 2011 U.S.-Japan game was wildly dramatic, and the 2019 final was high-quality.

This was an incredible spectacle, that’s for sure. We don’t often see two of the biggest stars on the field deliver a duel of the scale we just saw from Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé.

What matters most to me is that Messi finally has a World Cup title. The endless Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo debate, which these days is fueled mainly by Ronaldo fans, is surely now over. So is Argentina’s subjugation of Messi below Diego Maradona, which the country started to get over in recent years and now fully has.

GOAT debates are fun, especially if arguing makes you feel good about yourself. Lionel Messi is the greatest player of my lifetime, and he’s now a World Cup champion. That’s enough for me.

Canales: For those who prefer back and forth games, the 2011 Women’s World Cup final might still rank higher than this 2022 men’s final. Japan versus USA in 2011 also had the incredible emotional overtones of the Japanese squad playing in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster earlier that year. But 2-2 isn’t 3-3 and the gut punch France delivered to Argentina after a first half where the Albiceleste seemed firmly in control was the epitome of, “They had us in the first half, not gonna lie.”

That moment when France equalized and the dream for Messi to finally win the World Cup seemed almost over was a reminder of how fickle soccer can be. To have it come down to not only Messi scoring again, but also another penalty kick converted by Mbappé, then penalty kicks where Messi and Mbappé both converted, but Emi Martinez made the crucial saves and a stoic defender, Gonzalo Montiel, is the one that converted the penalty for the championship — the script would probably be thrown out in Hollywood for being unrealistic.

As you said, the endlessly repetitive debates should end with Messi as the true GOAT, but I’ll wager they don’t, mostly because as you alluded, it’s a made up argument in the heads of people who just want to argue. Messi throughout his career has been too humble, too quiet for those who like more flash to their athletes. But for those who have watched him every time in the past Argentina has lost out on a title, it has been so gratifying to see his big smile of satisfaction finally holding the World Cup trophy high.

Tannenwald:And I believe Montiel committed the handball that led to Mbappé's 3-3 equalizer?

Canales: Yes, absolutely. It was his chance to redeem himself.

Tannenwald: I can’t fault Mbappé and his France teammates for being sad, but I also can’t help thinking that they’re going to get another shot. Especially young ones like Mbappé and Aurélien Tchouaméni. France has an astonishing depth of talent, and the system that built it — the astonishing scale and quality of youth soccer in the Paris suburbs — isn’t going anywhere.

This Argentina team, though, my goodness. Sports in general, not just soccer, so often don’t give the star or the fan favorite the ending everyone wants. This time, it happened, and it took every ounce of what Messi and his teammates had to give.

Ángel Di María played outstanding after being underwhelming for much of this World Cup. Montiel had his redemption arc, scoring the title-winning penalty after committing a handball that gave Mbappé the penalty kick for the 3-3 equalizer. Enzo Fernández, who won the best young player of the tournament award, completed 77 of 91 passes and made 11 defensive recoveries.

I didn’t think Argentina would win this World Cup because I’ve only ever experienced disappointment watching the Albiceleste, especially during Messi’s career. Today, they delivered.

And they proved your pre-tournament prediction right. Congrats on that.

Canales: I’ll admit to losing some faith in my pick watching France play nerveless, top-level soccer as the players marched through the tournament. I also lost a lot of faith when France hit the equalizer, because wow, that came so fast and seemingly with just a little effort on the team’s part to wake up.

The redemption arc wasn’t for Montiel alone, but for the whole Argentina team, including Messi, to get back up off the mat and come out swinging in the final round. Classic Rocky moment, even if Argentina are unlikely in many cases to be considered underdogs.

The thing about France being defending champions, however, is that regardless of how deserving the team is this year, there’s still the feeling for many of, “Hey, Mbappé and Co. — granted, not exactly all the same players — already have one.” Though nothing is guaranteed in the fickle, competitive world of international soccer, I suspect you’re right, Jon, that France will return to the pinnacle of the sport again soon.

Honestly, the parallels between the Union’s MLS Cup final and the World Cup final were just eerie to me, including the scoreline and the penalty kick moments of tension and high drama. How lucky and coincidental is it to have the best domestic final and World Cup final in the same year? That’s pretty memorable. Until, of course, it’s 2026 and the Union are defending champions the same year three of their former players make the USMNT team. I figure I should keep prognosticating, since I’m on a roll.

Tannenwald: I wouldn’t want to frame MLS-World Cup similarities that way to Julián Carranza.

Canales:Ah, yes, how could we forget a current MLS player getting a World Cup medal? Not Carranza, of course, but still.

Tannenwald: Indeed, Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada is the first active MLS player to win a World Cup. And he wasn’t entirely a passenger: He played the last 12 minutes of Argentina’s group stage win over Poland.

It’s simultaneously weird and inspiring to know that the next men’s World Cup really is going to be played in this country, including in Philadelphia. There’s just so much to do between now and then, starting with next year’s women’s World Cup. The next big international stuff will come in 2024, hopefully to include the U.S. men playing in the Copa América. Maybe even hosting it, if U.S. Soccer, and a few of its friends, can convince South American governing body CONMEBOL to go for it.

But no matter where that tournament is played, the U.S. men’s program has to do everything possible to take part in it somehow.

Canales: There’s a part of me that’s amused at the idea that someone, in Philly or across the nation, perhaps was just putting burgers on the grill before checking out the Phillies in the last World Series game and decided to watch the MLS Cup final, or this World Cup final simply because the tournament is coming to Philadelphia, and now has these two matches to reference as their soccer experience.

Ok, they aren’t all like these two, but those matches are definitely a taste of what makes the beautiful game magical, addictive and horrifying at the same time.

And yes, considering I believe what gave Messi the will to power through all obstacles in this World Cup was his experience in Argentina’s Copa America win with most of this team, that competition is absolutely what the USMNT needs.

Tannenwald: The U.S. just needs to be able to play good teams in meaningful games. It won’t get many opportunities for that otherwise.


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