Moments of Magic from the World Cup
1. Messi captains Argentina to glory
Argentina and Lionel Messi lifted the coveted trophy after a successful campaign that was written in the stars. After a glorious Copa America campaign in 2021 that saw the blue and white stripes claim the regional trophy, Messi and Emiliano Martinez’s star performances earnt them the Player of the Tournament, and the Golden Glove; foreshadowing a repeat in Qatar where the two replicated their past triumphs.
It was the first World Cup since the passing of legend, Diego Maradona, with it set to be Messi’s last ever World Cup. History beckoned and the weight of expectations lay on the shoulders of the 26 men boarding the flight to Doha.
They progressed through to the knockout stages after topping Group C, with 2-0 victories against Mexico and Poland booking their place into the next round. Up next for Scaloni’s men was Australia, who had finished Group D strongly, matching France on points. It was a tightly contested tie, with Messi spearheading his side into the quarter-final by opening the scoring and dominating the game, leaving the Socceroos’ defenders in a trance as they watched the magician at work. Then came the Netherlands, in what would be a dramatic and cagey affair. The South Americans found themselves 2-0 up with seven minutes remaining. Nahuel Molina broke the deadlock after being found by a mesmerising through ball from the PSG forward, with Messi converting a penalty to double their advantage. The Oranges had other ideas though, with substitute Wout Weghorst completing a brace to send the tie to extra-time and then penalties. His second came from a free-kick in the dying moments of the game. It was the 11th minute of stoppage time, and the Netherlands had a free-kick in a shooting position. They opted to play it short, with Weghorst just getting in front of his man to poke the ball home and make it 2-2. Penalties followed, with Martinez’s heroics sending the Dutch home and Argentina into the last four.
Big games require big players, and who else but Messi opened the scoring against Croatia in the semi-finals. Julian Alvarez then made it two five minutes later with a mazy run that had an aspect of fortune to it, almost confirming Argentina’s place in the grand finale. In the 69th minute, Alvarez notched a second thanks to a sublime showing of individual brilliance from that man, Messi. He turned promising defender, Josko Gvardiol, inside-out, before laying it on a plate for the Manchester City attacker.
The World Cup final awaited them. Could they go one step further than 2014 and relive the glory of 1986?
2. The Best World Cup Final In History?
Argentina faced reigning champions France, who had their own superstar: Kylian Mbappe. The world tuned in, with expectations high. In the 23rd minute, Argentina were awarded a penalty after Ousmane Dembele tripped Angel Di Maria. Messi stepped up and sent Hugo Lloris the wrong way to give his side the advantage. The South American’s dominated the first-half and doubled their lead through a fantastic breakaway goal that combined teamwork with skill. After a dangerous France attack, Argentina managed to clear the ball. Messi flicked it on to the advancing Alexis Mac Allister who drove forward and played a perfectly weighted ball to Di Maria, who bounced the ball off the soil and over Lloris to wheel away in celebration.
The trophy looked to be all but sealed, as the blue and whites maintained their two-goal lead until the late stages of the game. But disaster struck with ten minutes remaining, as Nicolas Otamendi’s clumsy defending allowed Randal Kolo Muani to rob him of possession and storm the box. The former Manchester City defender brought him down, and the referee pointed to the spot. Messi’s PSG teammate, Mbappe converted the spot-kick to restore hope for Les Bleus. The goal flipped the switch for Mbappe, who suddenly was a man on a mission. Two minutes later he equalised with a stunning first-time volley that required elegant technique and inch-perfect precision. Argentina were stunned, Buenos Aires was silenced, Paris had awoken.
After an exhilarating ninety minutes, the tie went to extra-time, where every kick of the ball mattered. In the 108th minute, Messi sent the Argentina faithful wild by tapping home what seemed to be the winner. Lautaro Martinez’s powerful shot was palmed away by Lloris, but only as far as Messi, who calmly volleyed the ball over the ‘keeper to make it 3-2. It seemed like the fairy-tale ending for Argentina and Messi, who had one hand on the trophy. However, Mbappe stepped up and matched the efforts of the Argentines, becoming the second man ever to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. The ball fell to him following a corner, he took a touch and released a curling strike that was heading for the top right corner. Gonzalo Montiel had only been on the pitch twelve minutes, but stopped the ball using his arm, conceding a late penalty for France. Mbappe had ice running through his veins, and sent the tie to penalties with a composed finish that sent Martinez in the opposite direction.
With 123 minutes on the clock, Muani was through on goal and had the opportunity to snatch the World Cup out of the hands of Argentina. The ball bounced, but was met by the powerful boot of Muani, who thought he had clinched it with seconds left. Martinez came to Argentina’s rescue and made an outstanding save with his outstretched leg that was worthy of winning any match, let alone the biggest game of any player’s career.
He once again was the hero after a nervy penalty shoot-out that saw Argentina claim the prestigious trophy as they defeated France 4-2 from the spot. Martinez saved Kingsley Coman’s penalty whilst his mind games played a huge part in Aurelien Tchouameni dragging his spot-kick wide of the post.
3. Morocco Emerge As Dark Horses
Morocco finished the tournament in fourth place, becoming the first African side ever to reach a World Cup semi-final. Prior to the opening ceremony, they were tipped to not make it past the group stage, with Belgium and Croatia heading into the tournament as Group F’s favourites. The Atlas Lions had other ideas though, and made the continent of Africa proud on their memorable World Cup journey. They kicked off their campaign with a solid goalless draw against Croatia, who were the other side to be knocked out in the semi-finals. Next up, Morocco faced a Belgian side full of household names such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and many more. The Lions roared though, and a stellar performance saw them breeze past Belgium 2-0. Their final game of Group F saw them claim a vital three points and progress into the knock- out stages with a 2-1 win over World Cup first-timers, Canada.
The knockout stages where were Morocco really captivated the attention of the world. They faced Spain in the round of 16, in a tie that they were heavily deemed as underdogs prior to kick-off. However, they matched Spain’s fluid passing and possession-based football, and took the tie to penalties after 120 minutes without a goal. They ended up defeating the Spaniards 3-0 on penalties, with ‘keeper Yassine Bounou starring. PSG right-back, Achraf Hakimi had the chance to put the tie to bed and make it 3-0 from the spot. He was the coolest man in the stadium and sent his nation through with the cheekiest of chips down the middle of the goal to send the travelling Moroccans into jubilation. He celebrated with a tribute to fellow PSG teammate and Spain centre-back, Sergio Ramos, who had been left out of the 26-man squad.
The quarter-finals came around and Morocco continued their run of surprising ‘bigger’ nations by knocking out Euro 2016 winners, Portugal. Youssef En-Nesyri became a national hero after heading home the decisive goal in the 42nd minute. The Moroccans defended resolutely against the waves of Portugal attacks, and progressed through to the semi-finals. Cristiano Ronaldo shed tears as he made his way down the tunnel, whilst the nation of Morocco celebrated a monumental night.
4. Did It Touch Ronaldo?
Speaking of Cristiano Ronaldo, an unusual moment occurred when Portugal faced Uruguay in the group stages. In the 53rd minute, Bruno Fernandes crossed into the box, aiming for the head of Ronaldo. The ball curled into the far corner, with the forward wheeling away in celebration. However, post-match Adidas confirmed the ball did not actually touch Ronaldo, using motion-sensors that evidenced Ronaldo having no contact with the ball.
The goal was subsequently given to Fernandes, who doubled his tally in the third minute of added time with a penalty.
5. The Madness of Group E
Group E consisted of Germany, Spain, Costa Rica and Japan, with Germany and Spain massively tipped to progress. The first round of fixtures concluded, with Spain thumping Costa Rica 7-0, as expected. However, the other tie did not follow suit, as Japan defeated 2014 champions, Germany. The Germans took the lead through Ilkay Gundogan, who converted successfully from the spot. It all changed after the interval though, as Ritsu Doan equalised with 15 minutes left on the clock. In the 83rd minute, disaster struck for Germany as Takuma Asano managed to squeeze the ball past Manuel Neuer at the front-post to complete another shocking upset in Qatar.
The result meant Germany had to go for it against Spain, with their hopes of bringing glory back to Deutschland in doubt. It was a tightly contested affair that concluded with the points being shared, the ideal result for Japan who had high hopes of progressing from the ‘Group of Death’. However, the Samurai Blues fell to a 1-0 defeat against Costa Rica, opening up the group for anyone to qualify. With one game remaining, Spain topped the group on four points, with Japan and Costa Rica on three, whilst the Germans placed rock bottom with a single point salvaged against the Spaniards.
The final fixtures of the group came, and with it carried huge expectations; this is where it mattered. Germany survived a scare against Costa Rica to secure their first win of the tournament. After Serge Gnabry opened the scoring, Yeltsin Tejeda and Juan Pablo Vargas put Costa Rica ahead; meaning that at the time, Germany’s fate was sealed. However, their quality prevailed, as Kai Havertz’s brace and Niclas Fullkrug’s late goal ended the game at 4- 2. If Spain beat Japan, Germany and Spain would go through. But, if Japan avoided a loss, they would be heading into the knock-out stages.
Alvaro Morata opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a neat header that was met with cheers throughout Germany. After a quiet first half, the tie exploded into action after the interval, with Japan equalising only three minutes after play resumed. Ritsu Doan scored his second of the tournament with a powerful strike that Adan could not stop.
Three minutes later, the ball was in the Spanish net again as Ao Tanaka wheeled away in celebration. He bundled the ball into the net from virtually the goal-line after Kaoru Mitoma sent the ball back across the box after an overhit pass had sent it trickling out for a goal-kick. Replays showed the ball to be over the line, with the goal surely about to be ruled out. However, it did not go to VAR, with FIFA not showing any replays or images of the ball. It left viewers thinking the ball was completely out, with Japan taking an undeserved lead. The consequences were deeper for Germany, who were now out!
After the game, FIFA released images of the ball, showing it to be in-play despite other angles suggesting it had left the field of play. It was elation for Japan, who topped a star- studded group with two wins out of three. But the mood was contrasted by frustrated and disappointed Germans, who crashed out of the tournament early after an unimpressive group stage performance.
6. Saudi Arabia’s Historic Victory
Despite Argentina’s overall glory and triumph, they fell at the first hurdle to Saudi Arabia in one of the greatest underdog stories. The star-studded Argentina side faced a spirited Saudi Arabia side who aimed to spoil the party and inspire a nation; they did just that. It looked to be a walk in the park for the Copa America champions, who opened the scoring after just ten minutes had been played. The referee went to the VAR monitor and awarded a penalty after Leandro Paredes was wrestled to the floor following a corner. Up stepped Messi, who scored his first of the competition.
Messi thought he had scored another, but was denied by the linesman’s flag, who spotted the PSG forward was offside before slotting the ball into the back of the net. Lightning struck twice, as Lautaro Martinez’s dink was ruled out for an offside too. It then happened AGAIN as Martinez rounded the outrushing ‘keeper to tap into an empty net, but was offside when receiving the ball.
Argentina’s misfortune was Saudi Arabia’s blessing, as the greens equalised three minutes after the interval through Saleh Alshehri. He raced at goal and despite being forced into shooting from a tight angle, squeezed the ball past the arms of Martinez and into the far corner. The goal was met with cheers around the stadium, as the Arabians did not have far to travel for the game.
The crowd were on their feet again five minutes later as the turnaround was complete. Salem Aldawsari took the ball down with a great first touch, span around and weaved inbetween two blue and white shirts to provide himself with enough space for a shot. He let fly and watched his strike arrow into the top right corner, giving his side a shock lead.
The underdogs held on and claimed all three points in a historic victory for them and the rest of Arabia. The players received a heroes welcome and were rewarded with a Rolls Royce each courtesy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.