A month of sleeplessness comes to its drowsy end with the World Cup final late Sunday, Dec. 18 in Qatar, defending champion France versus the perennial underachievers of late, Argentina.
A match for the ages, after four weeks of grueling encounters, nifty challenges, assorted headers, and blocked volleys, with some nerve-wracking penalty shootouts thrown in—and now everyone must pause and brush aside the sandman because here’s the real thing: Football’s best showcase pitting perhaps the greatest player of his generation, Lionel Messi, against the budding superstar, fleetfooted Kylian Mbappe in a clash of shades of blue, Albiceleste against Les Bleus, a treat for any soccer fan from Tawi-Tawi to Tangiers.
The last weekend before Christmas indeed promises a boon for local sports fans, with collegiate leagues NCAA and UAAP having their own respective Game 3 showdowns, Letran vs Saint Benilde on Sunday afternoon and UP vs Ateneo on Monday, Dec. 19, effectively sandwiching the Qatar coup de grace.
Qatar time being five hours behind Manila has made for insomniac viewing since the tournament kicked off on Nov. 20. The group stage though had some early afternoon games in Doha, or early evening in Manila. It was during the wind-up of the group stage and knockout phase that things got testy endurance-wise against sleep, especially some simultaneous games to determine placing and who would move on to the knockouts based on goal difference or goals scored, head-to-head or fair play to resolve any ties.
Early on there were upsets and surprises, as 2014 champion Germany and highly ranked Belgium failed to survive their groups, and Asia’s Japan and South Korea and Africa’s Morocco and Senegal advanced. The most memorable goal in groups was the winning one of Japan over Germany, with the ball already appearing out of bounds past baseline, only to be flicked back to the striker to the net. It was subject to debate for at least a couple of days after, but experts and VAR contended that if a ball’s sphere, particularly a spinning one, aligns with the plane of a baseline, then the ball is still in play. This principle, they said, can also be seen when taking corners, where the ball is not strictly placed within the oval marker before kicking, as long as any point of the ball makes contact with such oval (or its plane). Germans and their fans, however, were unconvinced by the “endline of God” explanation.
Another slam-bang affair in the groups that caught soccer fan’s imagination was the Portugal-Ghana match, goalless in the first half but roller coaster in the second with Portugal scoring first then Ghana equalizing, the Europeans scoring two more before Africa got one back, the Ghanian imitating Cristiano Ronaldo’s cape like celebration before ending 3-2.
Eventually, Spain and Brazil fell by the wayside too, both via the dreaded penalty shootout to Morocco and Croatia, respectively. It was particularly harsh for Brazil, which has the most cups, with all-time great Pele watching their matches from the hospital bed. It wasn’t a less bitter exit for 2010 champions Spain, whose only remaining member of that squad, Sergio Busquets, captained a fairly young roster that started like a house on fire with a 7-1 whipping of Costa Rica.
England too fell as its captain Harry Kane missed a second penalty awarded that could have tied the game again, blazing the ball over the crossbar against his Tottenham Hotspur teammate Hugo Lloris of France. Poor Kane cut a woeful figure afterward, the full weight of 56 years of British futility on his shoulders.
As for the brawling quarterfinal between Argentina and the Netherlands, you have to see it to believe it. Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown leading to the shootout, with Argentine captain Messi observing that things happened on the pitch that shouldn’t have happened, recriminations and heckling and preening spilling over way past the final whistle.
Croatia for a moment looked to replicate its final appearance in 2018, only to be denied by vintage Argentina in the semifinal, 3-0, in a battle of legends Messi and Luka Modric. A pundit says Argentina’s opening group stage loss to Saudi Arabia was key to their run to the final, taking five straight must-win games.
It was the end too for the fairy tale run of Morocco, the first African team to make the semis, running into the blue wall of France in the semis, 2-0.
Now is the moment of truth as insomniacs of the world unite to watch Les Bleus seeking to become the first repeat champions since the Pele-led Brazil in 1962. The Albiceleste stand in their way, as Messi looks to notch the only missing silverware in his storied career that includes La Liga and Champions League titles with Barcelona.
Anyone’s guess, of course, too close to call much like UP-Ateneo and Letran-Benilde, but this is the showcase. This is the beautiful game. The calls to boycott the World Cup are like yesterday’s papers, so who wants yesterday’s girl? Not Diego Maradona, watching from the blue skies over Doha. Nor Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina’s leading goal scorer until recently. Not Zinadine Zidane, Paul Pogba, or Karim Benzema, retired or injured watching from the stands or via cable looking at the beautiful prize.