France came back from an early two-point deficit, saved a tie in the last minutes of overtime, then fell short in penalty kicks to give soccer’s FIFA world cup to Argentina in a dramatic final in Qatar.
It was the third championship for the Albiceleste and the consecration of their star Lionel Messi, at 35 considered the best of his time and generation, and no one can begrudge them. They played more cleanly than expected of them — fewer fake injuries to draw penalty kicks and less foul play to actually injure opposing players.
Messi took advantage of a deserved penalty to score early in the first half the first half, then followed up by setting up Angel Di Maria soon after.
The powerful Argentine attacking game seemed to doom France as they remained scoreless until late in the second half. But at that point their prodigal star forward Kylian Mbappé converted a penalty and immediately afterward regained the ball before the Argentines could launch another attack and, in a beautiful combination with Marcus Thuram, deftly put in a second goal to even the score before the end of regulation.
Messi, whom his compatriot the legendary Diego Maradona called the greatest ball mover in history, scored again in overtime and it looked like curtains. Mbappé was fouled and he converted the penalty to again tie the match, 3-3. His teammate Kolo Muani had an opportunity blocked by a brilliant steal, and the match went to shootout to break the tie. Messi and Mbappé both scored their goals, but the Albiceleste stayed perfect while les Bleus went one for three. Final score 3-3 (4-2) and the ball game.
It was a great way to close a tournament that had seen plenty of great sport over three weeks. The two best players in the world by broad consensus, took turns giving their side the edge and came up equal. At 35, it was as if the successor to Diego Maradona in Argentine (and global) football was passing the torch to his 23-year old teammate on the Paris-St-Germain club, one of the top franchises in big league soccer.
Mbappé certainly played his part, and surely he is too much the gentleman to say his team let him down. Monday morning quarterbacks, or whatever they are called in soccer, will debate for many years why the French team, which had been playing aggressive offense for three weeks, was so late to get going on the fateful day. As defending champions, they were well oiled and motivated behind shrewd midfielder Antoine Griezmann and experienced coach Didier Deschamps. The Argentines had a big, riotous day, holding the ball more and maintaining their élan even when the momentum seemed to move against them.
Just as GOAT debates in any sport are rarely over when the bar closes, there will always be late night anecdotes and arguments about whether this should be called the best, or at least the most exciting, in international soccer ‘s 92-year history. The teammates become rivals, the heroics of the young French attacker, the veteran’s coolness under intense pressure — Messi, close to retirement, lacked this one championship on his résumé — the superb goal-keeping on both sides in which finally, in the kick-out, one side just had to win and one side had to concede; the grace and resilience under intense pressure on both sides — yes, it was a game for the ages.
And all the more so because, not to be a killjoy or take anything away from the players or their coaches, the venue really did stink. Obviously, it is almost too easy to make snide comments about big time sports, but it cannot be ignored — especially as the media tried to run interference for the rot even as it could not avoid reporting it.
Almost from the beginning, international sports events in the modern era deviated from their noble ideals. From celebrations of youth and sportsmanship, international sports became public relations stunts for wicked men and their tyrannical regimes. The first FIFA world cup was won by Uruguay in 1930, and at the very next championship, 1934, won by Italy, the Nazi regime used the consolation match for third place (called the “small final”) in the context of its strategy to take over Austria. The assassination of Austria’s chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, by Austrian Nazis took place in wake of the monster rally that the Nazis organized during the match and which was accompanied by an annexation propaganda offensive.
The Nazis were responsible for the deliberate and explicit politicization of sports, with the Italian Fascists and the Soviet Communists quickly following suit. Sanctimony is not in order here, because the Free World obliged. With the important caveat that in free societies the twisted aims of individuals is not on the same plane as organized gangsterism by tyrannical states, the fact remains that the top men in, to take the most egregious example, the U.S. Olympic movement, enabled Nazi propaganda and, decades later, tolerated Communist cheating and abuse.
The lessons never take. The self-serving Avery Brundage kowtowed to the Nazis in the 1930s and the Soviet Communists in the 1950s. Courageous athletes, Jesse Owens and his teammate the future congressman Ralph Metcalfe, stood up against the Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics where the sports establishment looked the other way. Matters are scarcely better when the NBA’s Nate Silver, and even some coaches and players, find excuses today to avert their eyes while profiting from the Red Chinese market.
Would it really be so difficult for pro basketball to just say no when teams and players are invited to play in Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China? Or, perhaps better, why not — free men and free markets, after all — let them play but only under conditions guaranteeing their safety and the total transparency of the events in which they participate, with the added stipulation that neither players nor coaches nor sportswriters can be censored by the host regime.
The WTA’s president, Steve Simon, took the right attitude toward Communist China when its persecution of the minority Uighur population became known, as did the abuse of the tennis star Peng Shuai. In pulling American women’s tennis out of the Chinese circuit (with broad support from the players), he did something that, had the WNBA had the same attitude, would have protected Brittney Griner (if only by advising her not to play in Russia) and spared the U.S. a major geostrategic blow.
FIFA has been corrupt so long that when you ask European sportswriters about it they suggest lunch, meaning you can eat and turn on your tape recorder and they will still be talking two and a half hours later when you’ve reached the second coffees and cognacs and they say, “That’s the background, you see. Now as to your question about Blatter…”
Sepp Blatter is the former Swiss boss of FIFA, investigated and indicted in too many bribery and fixing cases to be recounted here, who was in charge when the family that runs Qatar bought the hosting rights to this year’s World Cup. They did not have any stadia in their country, where temperatures render a sport like soccer prohibitive. But they had plenty of money and they knew they could import slave labor from south Asia as they did on other construction projects. They spent a few hundred billion to build air-conditioned stadia and facilities for the tourists who would come and see the show. How many laborers were killed in the atrocious working conditions no one is sure, but the estimates range from the Qataris’ own 50, later revised upward, to outside reporters’ several thousands.
With Blatter facing jail (several high-ranking FIFA officials are in the slammer), the present boss Gianni Infantino, who makes up in sanctimony what he lacks in arrogance, stated that after 3,000 years of Western (white) oppression of the third world, the media might give the Qataris a little slack.
Although everyone (including TAS) made fun of his remarks at the time, it is remarkable how this line, in fact, got repeated in the media. When Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in an early round-robin match (the shocked Argentines, of course, got serious after that), and when Morocco got going on a great run that included victories over such powerhouse teams as Spain and Portugal, the story spinned toward the “revenge of the colonial world.” Morocco were (usage requires national teams to be plural) “the first African and Arab country” to have a shot at the title.
The idea of Saudi Arabia needing to be seen as a historical victim, let alone Qatar or even Morocco, is almost too silly to require a response, so the Western media finessed it by reporting on how the Europeans (and, they sometimes admitted, the South Americans, who for this purpose can be placed in the oppressor camp) have “dominated” soccer historically. Would American sportswriters play the victim angle to explain British— or Jamaican? or Indian? — dominance in cricket?
Cinderella stories are always great in tournaments, and the Atlas Lions were indeed wonderful, but Moroccans only consider themselves exploited Africans when it suits them, and for that matter they feel the same way about being victimized Arabs. In sports, they do not need condescension, they want to be winners.
Driss Ghali, a Moroccan correspondent for the conservative French magazine Causeur, noted that Morocco’s French coach, Walid Regragui, born and raised in France of Moroccan ancestry, is an excellent example of what immigration is supposed to produce: a Frenchman in mind and character. The Saudi team, too, is coached by a Frenchman. Conclusion: if you want to play a European game, make yourselves as good as they are.
Anyway, Morocco was not a French colony. It was a protectorate under a military regime that respected the traditional ways of the Kingdom. This was fairly easy, because for many years the military governor, a man named Hubert Lyautey, was a staunch reactionary who was happy in Morocco. (He hated the republican regime in France, but went home to serve his country in World War I.) An invert by preference, he would have loved to see his boys play high-level football, had the sport been played at that time and place.
Since there seems no way to win consistently in the sports-propaganda wars, maybe the United Nations should withdraw from most of its nation-building and peace-keeping missions, most of which seem to end badly, and build a sportspolis. International sports competitions would take place on some neutral zone without high-paid shills for the sponsoring terrorist-supporting tyrannies. It might work as a corruption-fighting innovation. But the hour is late: the Qatari already own the Paris-St Germain club where both Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé play; the takeover of cultural and sports institutions by the West’s own enemies may be beyond the point of no return, despite the efforts of coaches like Walid Regragui, who want the influence to move in the other direction.
Meanwhile, the Belgian financial police broke open a case against several deputies at the European Parliament during the last week of World Cup play. It is quite possible they did this on purpose, to get publicity favorable to the forthcoming trials, or it could be they wanted to get the perps red-handed. The redhands were carrying bags stuffed with hundreds of thousands, dollars and euros, perhaps more, as well as in-kind gifts, the kind of ritzy stuff oil billionaires like Qatar’s al-Thani family (richer than the Five Families together) favor. The redhands belonged to a Socialist Greek Europarliamentarian, a couple Italian pols, more are likely going to show up. Some are already in jail — flight risks, perhaps. Qatar does not extradite.
The French press has been reporting that the net is now extending to Morocco. It is understandable the Qataris would be buying Greeks and other Euros, for while they do not care if they have reputations as slavers, since they despise everybody, it can impact their marketing.
The Moroccans, however, have more complicated reasons for seeking agents and influence. They have a large population in Europe, heavily concentrated in Belgium and France, to which they export their unemployed masses. These include cheap as well as professional-grade labor, and then there are also criminal and jihadist elements that take their habits and their sales pitches into the unassimilated neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris and Brussels.
They have security issues of their own at home, as well. Notwithstanding the manufactured fervor of the Atlas Lions fans — winning for Arabs and Africans everywhere! with the loud approval of the New York Times! — the fact is that the Moroccans have no particular empathy for either the black Africans to their south nor the Palestinians of their eastern, or middle-eastern, imaginations. Only in the “Occident” is there an “African Arab football dream” of anti-colonial revenge.
As football players, and their coaches, know. They went to Doha to win at football. Millions of boys dream of being like them someday, and the only revenge they want is on the football pitch and, maybe, at the bank. They play in the slums of Molenbeek and Clichy-sous-Bois and also in Lagos, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Casablanca… They play with torn balls on rough lots in Rio and Mexico City and Buenos Aires. They do not dream of playing in a big tournament to stick it to the French or the Americans. They dream of making it, on their own merits, and bringing their glory home. As some of them will.