Lionel Messi and the Winners and Losers of the 2022 Men's World Cup
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is complete. Argentina stand as champions, led by Lionel Messi, the man who always felt destined to triumph at this tournament.
It's been a month of memorable results, tears of joy and, if you're named Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, tears of sadness. We've seen African history, breakthrough stars and probably the greatest final of all time.
We've also seen some standout Winners and Losers…
Winners: The Two Lionels
Messi did it. He finally lifted the World Cup trophy.
He put on a stunning performance in the final victory over France, scoring two in the 3-3 draw and then netting the crucial first penalty in the shootout. He hushed any remaining naysayers. The argument that "Messi can't be considered the GOAT because he hasn't won the World Cup" is no more.
Messi dragged his side through the group stage with some vital goals before stepping up for the most important penalty of his life against Les Bleus. He looked nervous but coolly stroked it beyond Hugo Lloris anyway.
From there Leo began to purr, spraying passes around the pitch and linking play beautifully as France struggled to contain Argentina's energy and aggression. Messi's flick that sent Alexis Mac Allister through to set up Ángel Di María was just beautiful. It was evidence of a man who would not let this moment pass, even after France did everything to send the tie to 120 minutes.
Telemundo Deportes @TelemundoSports
🇦🇷 ¡¡¡GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL DE ARGENTINAAAAAAAAAA!!! 🇦🇷<br><br>🔥 ¡EL 'FIDEO' ÁNGEL DI MARIAAAAAAAAAA! ¡GOLAZO ARGENTINOOOOOO! 🔥<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ARG?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ARG</a> 2-0 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/FRA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#FRA</a><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MundialTelemundo?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MundialTelemundo</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ElMundialLoEsTodo?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ElMundialLoEsTodo</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Qatar2022?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Qatar2022</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ARGvsFRA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ARGvsFRA</a> <a href="https://t.co/JExzImqHt9">pic.twitter.com/JExzImqHt9</a>
Then there was the extra-time goal, a cheeky finish that Hugo Lloris was so close to stopping. A confusing offside flag didn't halt celebrations, even if more drama was to come.
Kylian Mbappé nearly ruined everything, scoring a sensational hat trick to put his team on the brink. On any other day, this slide would be dedicated to him. But Mbappé will have more opportunities to add to his 2018 World Cup win. Today was about Messi and Argentina.
Messi's teammates also played well, but coach Lionel Scaloni deserves a special mention. The 44-year-old's smart tactical decisions went a long way toward regaining momentum after defeat to Saudi Arabia in the first game. He made a number of brave decisions, including dropping Lautaro Martínez for Julián Álvarez, and actively looked to solve Argentina's initial problems in midfield and ropiness at full-back.
Scaloni's greatest masterstroke came in the final. His bold call to bring Di María into the starting lineup, exploiting an overly attack-minded French wing, took the game away from the defending champions in the first half. Di María won the penalty, scored a fantastic second and forced Didier Deschamps into subbing Ousmane Dembélé before the break.
Although Di María's early substitution piled pressure on Argentina, who suddenly looked devoid of an attacking outlet, Scaloni couldn't rely on the player for more minutes after such a bit-part role throughout the tournament. The coach deserved a bit of luck and to come through the haymakers France were about to launch.
Everything Scaloni did contributed to giving Messi room, allowing him to work the space and dictate the pace of play. This pattern followed Argentina through the tournament and led them to success.
Who knew another Lionel would be so key for Messi to finally reach the promised land?
Loser: Cristiano Ronaldo
Contrasting Messi and Mbappé, Cristiano Ronaldo had a miserable World Cup. He scored just one goal, a penalty in the 3-2 opening win against Ghana, and then rapidly played his way out of the Portugal side. He lost his place to Gonçalo Ramos, who netted a hat-trick in his first start.
Portugal produced some moments of real quality in Qatar, particularly in the 6-1 win over Switzerland, the first game that coincided with Ronaldo's benching. The free-flowing link-up of Bruno Fernandes, João Félix and others snapped together more potently with Ramos' hold-up play.
Ronaldo has developed this slow, almost off-balance style where he often stumbles into losing possession. Then there's the constant gesticulating when he isn't passed the ball, the annoyance when he's subbed and his claiming of Fernandes' goal in the win over Uruguay (despite FIFA proving it was not his goal).
He regularly ended Portugal's forays forward, and although it was a brave decision by Fernando Santos to drop him, it was the right call. Even with Santos now gone, it's difficult to see a future where Ronaldo is leading Portugal to success.
All of this has played out to the backdrop of Ronaldo and Manchester United mutually agreeing to part ways before the tournament after he dragged the club and coach Erik ten Hag in his interview with Piers Morgan.
Ronaldo has reportedly wanted to secure a move to a Champions League team since the summer, but seemingly none came knocking.
He is linked with a move to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia. Ronaldo will be able to bathe in cash, sure, but is this really what he had in mind when he made his bed at United? He has done nothing to earn a move to an elite club, a statement emboldened by a poor World Cup that highlighted his increasing number of flaws.
Winner: African Football
As the great philosopher Shakira once said, "This time for Africa."
What a month it has been for the continent after Morocco's stunning run to the semi-finals. Never before had an African nation got this far. Walid Regragui's side did so by playing compact, well-drilled football that let elegant players like Hakim Ziyech and Azzedine Ounahi shine with their terrific passing and ability to skip around players. They also had France in major trouble during the last-four showdown.
Morocco's achievement gives the entire continent greater hope ahead of the 48-team World Cup in 2026. But you know what? They weren't the only African team to capture the public's imagination.
Cameroon was unlucky not to escape a group including Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia. The Indomitable Lions provided some of the tournament's most memorable moments through striker Vincent Aboubakar, whose performances were full of joy and quality.
Aboubakar came off the bench to grab a goal and assist in the 3-3 draw with Serbia. The Al--Nassr man's strike was unbelievable; he sprang beyond the high defensive line and lobbed the ball over Vanja Milinković-Savić, with everyone presuming the finish would be ruled out for offside. He timed his run perfectly and it stood, ranking among the goals of the tournament.
Even more heartwarmingly, Aboubakar scored a late winner in the next match against Brazil. He received the happiest red card we've ever seen after taking his shirt off in celebration, resulting in a second yellow card that both he and the referee just laughed at. The 30-year-old's pure glee at excelling in front of the world couldn't be contained. Wonderful stuff.
Senegal managed to finish second in a testing group including the Netherlands, Ecuador and Qatar, while Ghana was only one point off nabbing second alongside Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay. Morocco's achievements rightfully grab the headlines, but make no mistake about it, all the African nations should be proud of an inspiring showing against difficult opposition.
Loser: Those Who Want to Keep the World Cup the Same
Qatar 2022 has proved one thing with certainty: the World Cup format doesn't need to change for it to be thrilling. The group stage was crammed with drama and shock results where unfancied teams went all-out for points.
In all honesty, it was arguably the most entertaining and closest-fought group stage of all time.
It was exciting to see Morocco, Costa Rica and other underdogs rack up huge wins over the favourites. The 32-team format is designed for this reason; eight groups of four weans out poor opposition through qualifying and keeps things competitive in a way that doesn't eliminate teams if they lose one game.
Adding another 16 teams to this process feels bloated and will result in extremely lopsided scores, as countries who were previously not equipped to qualify get stomped on by those who often do.
FIFA obviously want to extend the tournament as far as possible to maximise television and sponsorship income. The success of smaller sides in Qatar will now be used to galvanise the new approach: "Look at how well Morocco did, don't you want to see that with more teams?"
The reality is that such moments could be dulled with the increased numbers. Although FIFA are considering continuing with four-team groups after originally planning to scrap it for three, the World Cup as we know it is gone.
Qatar 2022 will have only strengthened the opinion of supporters who want to keep things the same. Unfortunately, FIFA will leech off the entertainment to tell you why things need to be different.
Winner: Clubs Looking to Sell Breakthrough Stars
The World Cup is the ultimate shop window, a mall of stars who can add a zero onto their valuation with eye-catching displays. There's always a James Rodríguez; someone who arrives out of nowhere to the fawning of European clubs who quickly spend a lot of money to secure their services.
While that was true of Qatar—you can bet bottom-of-Ligue 1 side Angers are going to receive a club-record fee for Ounahi—it was mainly a tournament of much-fancied players drumming up even greater cash for their clubs.
PSV Eindhoven's board will have high-fived with every Cody Gakpo goal as the Dutch forward seemingly closes on an immediate move to Manchester United. The admiration for Croatia defender Joško Gvardiol has only increased, with rumours of £110 million bids as English giants Manchester City and Chelsea circle.
You can bet Borussia Dortmund's finance team will enjoy a healthy Christmas after Jude Bellingham's hype reached the stratosphere on England's run.
We're in a unique situation in that the winter transfer window now follows the tournament, meaning any purchases can immediately impact a club's season. There's no bedding-in period or pre-season to get used to things; transfers inspired by the World Cup are in play right away.
It's often said January is a difficult time to buy due to selling teams raising the price for this reason. Qatar 2022's timing should galvanise a seller's market, one in which some elite sides will feel they just can't wait until the summer to secure the player they desire.