The Greatest Hits


Sunday 18th December, 3pm

Argentina @ 17/10
France @ 17/10
Draw @ 23/10
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In David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia the titular enigma is asked what attracts him to the desert, and he replies: ‘it’s clean’.  Well, T.E Lawrence would have adored the pristine plains of the Qatar Peninsula, then; because, after four weeks of expensive, vigorous sports-washing, it must possess the cleanest sands in all the world…

To the surprise – and also, possibly, the disappointment – of many, Qatar 2022 has been a success.  The Greatest Show On Earth has delivered a suitable numbers of hits – goals, fouls, scuffles, tears of elation, throes of dejection – to justify its extraordinary outlay.

Those are the moments people will think of now whenever the country is mentioned; and not, well, all the other stuff.  So, congrats, job done.

On a less cynical note, Qatar has also shown us that a noteworthy World Cup can take place in a small country.  In classic FIFA fashion, of course, this positive will be quickly pummelled into oblivion – the 2026 competition is set to be an ungainly continental sprawl.

The distance between host cities Vancouver and Miami?  About 3,500 miles.  A journey that even The Proclaimers would baulk at…

For England Qatar 2022 was neither an ignominious failure nor an outstanding triumph – so, very much a campaign in the manager’s image.  Despite the undoubted young talent in the squad, the reality of actually winning one of these tournaments still seems extremely difficult to grasp – a tantalising mirage amongst the desert dunes.

Far be it from me to criticise people for dancing – I took early retirement from the infernal activity many years ago – but one hopes Brazil now accepts that no matter how much ‘group pigeon impersonations’ are part of your national culture, 30 minutes into a 2nd round match against a hapless South Korea side is not an appropriate time to succumb to the urge.

I’ve always been fascinated by the importance of luck in tournament football.  Had Poland and Mexico not drawn their opening group game, for example – a match in which Robert Lewandowski failed to score a penalty – Argentina v France could very well have taken place in the 2nd round.

That these two sides now meet in the final suggests that the good fortune is ours, because a fixture more stuffed with intrigue and stars and drama and stories you are unlikely to find.

Let’s start with Lionel Messi, for this World Cup final will be his last game of international football.  Our one remaining chance to witness his brilliance on the biggest stage for La Albiceleste: the skill, the irrepressible scurrying, the ball somehow (invisibly) Velcroed to his toes.

Though sport rarely delivers endings in neat, well-wrapped packages; a win for Messi and for Argentina would provide such a gift.  But you can’t just narrate it into existence.  There are many other factors at play.

It could be argued that Messi has already won the biggest prize on offer at this tournament.   Because in propelling his side through the draw, while CR7 sulked on the sidelines, he established a surely unassailable lead in the all-important, remarkably-protracted GOAT-race.

Billing the final as Messi v Mbappé (two players who play for a club bankrolled by – quelle surprise! – Qatar) is simplistic too; though the Parisian prodigy is also on the verge of immortality if he wins back-to-back World Cups before turning 24.  While Argentina may revolve around Messi, the French XI is a more intricate mechanism of interlocking cogs.

Antoine Griezmann, to highlight one, seems to have benefitted from a curiously staccato start to the season, and has emerged from his club chrysalis as an indefatigable source of box-to-box creativity.

But if Messi is firing, can he really be stopped?  Or could tiredness be a factor?  When ‘The Greatest’ hits the pitch will he still have enough left in the tank to pitch the greatest hits?

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