Monday briefing: How Argentina secured the World Cup in perhaps the greatest final ever

In today’s newsletter: Lionel Messi secured his legacy as one of the greatest football player’s ever at a tournament which has been a triumph of sportwashing for Qatar

“Not been a classic this,” a friend said reasonably enough on WhatsApp after 76 minutes. Three minutes later, France’s Randal Kolo Muani was fouled by Argentina’s Nicolás Otamendi as he surged into the box, and Kylian Mbappé scored the resulting penalty. What followed gave this match a reasonable claim to being the greatest World Cup final ever played.

What a game. What a game! First a procession, then a knife fight, and finally, for Lionel Messi, a coronation. All kinds of people with no interest in football found themselves caught up in it, seduced by the generational significance of the confrontation between Mbappé, who scored a hat-trick, and Messi – Paris Saint-Germain teammates at opposite ends of their careers. World Cup finals are normally turgid, terrified affairs, won by the side that makes the fewest mistakes. In this one, two great players rose fearlessly to the occasion, lifted by their teammates’ wild commitment to their cause. Nobody who watched will forget it.

It was a victory for Fifa and Qatar, too: football’s most irresistible stars making good their bet on the beautiful game’s power to make you forget every other kind of ugliness. Today’s newsletter will take you through the Guardian’s best writing on an incredible football match, the two great players who defined it, the fans who lived every minute of it, and the tournament’s inescapable sportswashing success. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Tesco | Burmese workers that produced F+F jeans for Tesco in Thailand report being trapped in effective forced labour, working 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay in appalling conditions, a Guardian investigation has found. 130 former workers art VK Garment Factory are suing Tesco for alleged negligence.

  2. Strikes | The health secretary, Steve Barclay, is expected to seek new talks with health unions to avert further strikes, as ambulance staff prepare for a walkout on Wednesday. It comes as No 10 rejected a proposal to give nurses a one-off lump-sum payment in an attempt to end the industrial action.

  3. US politics | California congressman Adam Schiff has said that there is sufficient evidence to charge Donald Trump with criminal offences over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. On Monday, the January 6 panel is expected to refer Trump to the US justice department.

  4. Biodiversity | A potentially transformational agreement for nature is close to being reached at Cop15 in Montreal, which could bring better protection for rainforests, big reforms to agriculture and better protection of indigenous territories and rights. But there are concerns that key areas are being overlooked.

  5. Twitter | Elon Musk has asked Twitter users whether he should step down as the head of the company, promising to abide by the results of a poll he posted on the site. A few minutes before this email was sent, 56% of more than 13m voters said that he should go.

In depth: ‘One of the greatest games in history’

Argentina fans celebrate in Buenos Aires.
Argentina fans celebrate in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Getty Images

Lionel Messi had it sewn up. Kylian Mbappé bust it back open. Emiliano Martínez made the save of a lifetime to take the game to penalties, and then produced an outrageous/magnificent display of gamesmanship in the shootout to give Messi his crowning triumph. This photo gallery captures some of the drama. It understandably skips Martinez’s exuberantly immature celebration.

“Argentina had to win this final three times, France refusing to accept it was Messi’s destiny to get his hands on the iconic gold trophy, that it was somehow preordained,” wrote David Hytner, in his comprehensive match report. “It will go down as surely the finest World Cup final of all time, the most pulsating, one of the greatest games in history.”

As ever, the minute-by-minute version captures the wild oscillations in momentum with an immediacy that returns you to each scarcely believable reversal. “Hello! Hello!” wrote Scott Murray on 79 minutes, as Kolo Muani won the penalty which Mbappé would then convert. “There’s no point trying to second guess this match,” he added, as normal time came to an end, adding a few minutes later: “This is wild!”

In the second-half of extra time: “Argentina retake the lead, and the stadium takes off into space. What a noise!” And when Messi finally sank to his knees at the shootout’s end: “He smiles, sparkling like a young boy, just a happy lad. What a performance! What a career! What a final.”


The superstars

Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé cross paths in the final.
Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé cross paths in the final. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Almost everyone who isn’t French (and even some of them, according to France manager Didier Deschamps) had the same sentimental outcome in mind: a crowning display of greatness for Messi, securing the one major honour that has eluded him and only then passing the baton to Mbappé. “Of course,” wrote Jacob Steinberg, in his assessment of the French performance, “fairytale endings are often ripped up when Mbappé grabs the script. Even Messi could feel the narrative slipping away.”

In the end, though, Messi held on to his pre-eminent status for just long enough. (As if that wasn’t enough, Mbappé then had to endure the insistent consolations of France’s president Emmanuel Macron.) It was, wrote Barney Ronay, a “kind of coronation, belatedly, for the greatest footballer of the age, probably of any age, the mooching 35-year-old mobile brain Lionel Messi, a thousand games into his astonishing career.” Once again, Messi prevailed while moving more slowly than almost anybody else on the pitch: except, said Ronay, “Messi’s walking is not really walking. It’s thinking. Walking is his rapid eye movement, his spinning disc while he crunches the code. Messi walks three miles a game. He is not doing this to get his steps up.”

“He had played here like destiny called,” Sid Lowe wrote, in a fine tribute to “the man who exhausted adjectives”. “This was his cup; there has never been a story like this, a competition so centred around one man – although an immense challenger appeared here – everyone waiting for the finishing touch, the perfect farewell.”


The fans

A sea of Argentina fans celebrate in Buenos Aires.
A sea of Argentina fans celebrate in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Víctor R Caivano/AP

As the game started in La Puerta Roja, a bar in downtown Buenos Aires, “The air smelled of adrenaline and the commentators could barely be heard over the din of yelling, hands banging on tables, and the occasional glass smashing,” wrote Amy Booth, in her fantastically evocative piece from the Argentinian capital. But after the euphoria of a seemingly impregnable lead, Mbappé’s two goals in two minutes “dampened the mood like an ice bath”.

As extra time began, “at least one person was breathing into a paper bag.” When victory was finally secured, fans in the city centre (pictured above) made the streets “a carnivalesque cacophony of cheers, car horns, cumbia music and bullhorns”. For a country in the grip of a currency crisis, with inflation at almost 100%, throughout the tournament “there has been a sense that Argentina’s national psyche badly needed a victory”. This video captures the celebrations. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.

In Paris, Jon Henley found Le Napoléon and Le Mondial cafes “rammed to the rafters inside with flag-waving, face-painted, red-white-and-blue bewigged fans”. At 2-0 down, Salma and Leila were outside and ready to go: “It’s way too cold,” said Salma. “And anyway, the match is over.”

Salma was wrong. When Argentina did finally prevail, the mood was one of acceptance: “We can’t really complain, can we?” said Karim. “We fought, came so close, by the end we’d given really everything we had. It so nearly happened.” Earlier, Philippe Moreau in Le Napoléon had summarised the inevitability of their opponent: “You can’t begrudge him. He is Messi.”


The legacy

Fifa president Gianni Infantino and sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, get their photo op with Lionel Messi.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino and sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, get their photo op with Lionel Messi. Photograph: Michael Regan/FIFA/Getty Images

The trap of this World Cup, as Barney Ronay observed, is the way Fifa and Qatar have so ruthlessly co-opted everything beautiful about the game in the service of a “$7bn sporting extravaganza”, a tournament that is built on “a global labour market that drives migrant workers into lucrative near-captivity; a system Qatar did not create, which it has simply embodied with manic hypercompetence”.

Messi and Mbappé, he notes, are both “paid ambassadors of Qatar Sports Investments via dizzying contracts with Paris Saint-Germain”. This tournament’s success is “the real thing: end-to-end fully encrypted sportswashing. It is an incredible feat of will.”

Earlier in the tournament, chief executive Nasser al-Khater’s responded to a question about the death of a migrant worker by saying: “death is a part of life … we have a successful World Cup, and this is something you want to talk about right now?” The relative weight he attributed to those two priorities was borne out by this remarkable match’s ability to mute every other concern. It was grim, but not that surprising, to see Elon Musk and Jared Kushner cheerlessly watching on.

Messi floats above that reality, but his greatness doesn’t change it. One of the defining images of this tournament came in his walk to bring the trophy to his teammates, with Fifa President Gianni Infantino and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, at his side (pictured above). He began to move away, but there they still were in the background – clinging to his coattails, trailing in his wake.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Celebrities are just like us – they fall in love! But not like us – they have to leave their lovers to go on world tours! Celebrity How We Met is irresistible, obviously. Start with Isy Suttie and Elis James, with a meet-cute featuring a Ribena-soaked cagoule. Archie

  • After being lambasted in the national media for their disruptive protest tactics, Samira Shackle spoke to Insulate Britain activists about what it was like to be right all along. Nimo

  • Morwenna Ferrier’s piece for Saturday magazine about caring for her dying mother in the first months of her new son’s life is an extraordinary piece of writing: a finely controlled, unflinching account of an overwhelming experience. Archie

  • Party season is well and truly under way, but if you’re not into the excessive levels of forced socialising then this article by Joel Golby, Lucy Mangan and Rhik Samadder was made for you. The three writers document how they navigate the festive period without losing their minds. Nimo

  • This New York Times investigation is a staggering account of the failures that have plagued Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, from antiquated maps to weapons with instructions lifted from Wikipedia. A retired general says: “Never in its history has Russia made such stupid decisions.” Archie

The front pages

Guardian front page 19 December 2022

The UK front pages are dominated by Argentina’s victory in the World Cup final (here’s a full run-through), but the Guardian also carries an exclusive story: “Workers who made jeans for Tesco ‘trapped in effective forced labour’”.

The Mirror has more on NHS strikes, saying “Cold-hearted Tories putting lives at risk”. The Telegraph reports “Strikes ‘trap elderly in hospitals’”, while the Times looks ahead to a planned Border Force walk out with “Airport strikes to wreak havoc”.

The Mail leads on comments from former footballer Gary Neville during ITV’s World Cup coverage: “Outrage at Neville’s World Cup rant over UK strikes.”

The Financial Times headlines, “Covid’s rapid advance in China cities sparks disruption and staff shortages”. Finally, the Sun carries a full page image of Argentina’s Lionel Messi raising the World Cup trophy, with the headline: “In the hand of God”.

Today in Focus

Rishi Sunak waves as he stands next to Liz Truss

Three prime ministers and a funeral: Marina Hyde’s political year

For political satire writers, such as the Guardian’s Marina Hyde, there can scarcely have been a more plentiful year of source material than 2022. Marina picks over a wild twelve months with Nosheen Iqbal.

Cartoon of the day | Edith Pritchett

Edith Pritchett / the Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Artists in residence: Dan Edelstyn and Hilary Powell with some of their Lynmouth Road neighbours.
Artists in residence: Dan Edelstyn and Hilary Powell with some of their Lynmouth Road neighbours. Photograph: Charlie Clift/The Observer

Lynmouth Road is a street in northeast London. Historically, it was built on the marshland on the banks of the River Lea. For a long time it was a working-class area home to residents that would live their for decades – but in recent years, because of transport links and good schools, house prices have more than doubled. A couple who live on the street have been on a mission to both rekindle a sense of community and make their lives more sustainable by turning their neighbourhood into its own solar power station. Dan Edelstyn and Hilary Powell are living on their roof as part of a crowdfunder for the project. Buying and installing solar panels is an expensive endeavour – but over time, the hope is to make this scheme into a reality to combat the energy crisis and become more sustainable, together. If all goes to plan, the first of the solar panels will go up early next year. “We can be powerful, us, the people who should be powerless,” says Edelstyn. “We do have the power to change things.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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