December 20, 2022
MANILA – The final showdown in this year’s World Cup was absolutely magical. In fact, it was dizzyingly surreal. At some point, it became almost cruel, especially for the fainthearted and anyone with coronary preconditions.
The match between fan favorite Argentina and defending champion France turned out so suspenseful, so suddenly competitive, and so filled with twists and turns that it ended up more like a Netflix thriller than a high-stakes chess game.
Eerily, the match turned out exactly as I forewarned Messi fans in the crowd: France coming back from way behind in exactly the same way the Netherlands did against Argentina in the final minutes of the quarterfinals game. After all, France, not too dissimilar from Italy in 2006, has been a master of counterattacks, thanks to superbly gifted strikers, most especially Kylian Mbappé, who once again proved that he is “not the future,” but rather the “present”!
Everyone knew that this could very well be Lionel Messi’s swan song in international football. Moreover, a World Cup trophy is the closest thing to ending the all-consuming “GOAT” (greatest of all time) debate hanging over the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry, which has defined modern football over the past decade. Meanwhile, the “other Lionel,” namely youthful Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni, has been far more risk-taking and aggressive in his overall strategy than his immediate predecessors.
As for France, the defending champions, they seemed eager to prove, despite their sloppy start, that their return to the finals of the World Cup was not a fluke. Sure, they displayed tremendous vulnerabilities in their quarterfinal (against England) and semifinal (against Morocco) matches. But the Frenchmen demonstrated their mettle as potentially the first back-to-back champions since Brazil (1962) more than half a century ago.
Aside from the superb performance of Messi and Mbappé, tactical genius was written all over the game. French coach Didier Deschamps’ decision to make major substitutions, especially bringing in Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman, completely changed the dynamics of the game after almost 60 minutes of Argentine domination. Scaloni returned the favor toward the end of the game by bringing in Inter Milan’s striker Lautaro Martínez.
The ultimate hero for Argentina was arguably the other Martinez, namely goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who made at least three major saves, including two during the penalty kicks, which prevented France from returning the much- coveted trophy home. This year’s World Cup final clearly showed why “football”—not “soccer”!—is considered as “the beautiful game”—and why it’s the world’s most popular sport.
Naysayers casually remark that football is “boring,” claiming that it’s inherently unappealing to Filipinos because our folks supposedly prefer basketball, which provides instant gratification and, accordingly, requires less attention span. I find those remarks not only ignorant, but even self-defeating.
Lest we forget, football is a sport that we Filipinos dominated at the dawn of the 20th century. Back then, we beat China in our first international game (1913) and, believe it or not, dominated Japan 15-2 (1917) just a few years later. In fact, the Iloilo-born Paulino Alcantara, who led the Philippines during its golden age in international football, would end up as FC Barcelona’s top goal scorer until the advent of Messi.
Unlike in basketball, height and raw physicality have never been the defining factors in football, hence the success of today’s Japan against European giants of Germany and Spain. And Argentina defeated a far taller and more physically dominant France in the latest World Cup. Tactics and teamwork are far more decisive in football. And Messi, arguably the greatest football player of all time, is almost as tall as an average Filipino male.
If anything, the success of Morocco, a country with a per capita income similar to the Philippines, also shows that developing countries can become football powerhouses with proper leadership (Walid Regragui), sustained investments in basic infrastructure (Mohammed V Sports Complex), as well as a diverse and talented squad combining local and foreign-born talent. Fortunately, we got the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup in less than a year. Our national team is one of the 32 top teams vying for one of the most prestigious trophies on earth. Let this be the beginning of a new era in Philippine sports!