December 20, 2022


We Are All Witnesses: The Argentina-France showdown wasn't just the greatest World Cup final of all time, it was one of the most thrilling spectacles in sports, period, and a fairy-tale ending for the game's best-ever player (Brian Phillips  Dec 18, 2022, The Ringer)

Argentina lost its first match of this tournament, to Saudi Arabia, in what many people saw as a humiliating result. But what everyone knows about stories is that they're not defined by their beginnings. Stories are defined by their endings, and after that first loss, the Albiceleste played with a raw edge of emotion whose equivalent I can't remember seeing at a World Cup before. They weren't the most talented or experienced team in the tournament, but they were the team that seemed to embrace the pressure of the moment with the most ferocious zeal. They won penalty shootouts in two of their last three matches, and when they taunted the Dutch after the first of those contests, it didn't seem boorish or unsportsmanlike so much as it seemed like an earnest expression of competitive commitment: We are here to win, and we're holding nothing back.

Maybe it was that undisguised emotion that made this story feel so childlike. I've been writing about Lionel Messi, in one form or another, since he was 20 years old and practically a child. I've been writing about Kylian Mbappé since he was even younger than that. Watching them today, with Messi at 35 and Mbappé at 23, I found myself thinking about what it means to grow up, what it means to confront all those compromises and disappointments from which soccer gives us a temporary escape.

Look at Messi now. He's no longer the wide-eyed elf who danced through defenses for Barcelona. He carries some marks of time on him. Not many--not after his singularly blessed and idolized life--but some. You can see in his eyes that he's taken some knocks, that he's aware of the possibility of failure, that he knows life is not always going to give him exactly what he wants. He looks at the ball, before running up to take a penalty, not with blithe confidence but with a sort of chastened determination. Everyone, even Leo Messi, has to learn that reality doesn't revolve around him all the time.

Mbappé, by contrast, looks utterly convinced of his own destiny. He looks certain, the way a child is certain, that he is the hero of the story. He glares fearlessly at every challenge, because being young is like holding a magic feather; it means believing that you are the chosen child of the universe, and if you do your best, you will inevitably be rewarded with a win.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. I don't know if growing up means learning to see reality through the story you tell yourself about it. But if it does, then it seems to me that this World Cup, and especially this final, held up a mirror to show us precisely how grown-up we are. Because the story felt so innocent, and just beneath the story, the reality was so grim. On the pitch, this was the best World Cup I've ever seen; it was also a tournament that was conceived as a sportswashing exercise, obtained through corruption, constructed with no regard for human life, and staged with contempt for anyone who spoke up for human rights.

Posted by at December 20, 2022 6:41 PM