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Why Argentina won this penalty shootout before it even began

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The noise was deafening, growing louder with each step. The French players who made their way down the lonely path to the penalty spot were greeted by a wall of hisses and jeers from the Argentine fans, and yet it added up to more than that: it was an animal howl of noise, a piercing shriek that forced them . to take note, to feel the fury in the air.

Kylian Mbappe did his best to ignore it: he had already scored two penalties and a hat-trick and he was not willing to miss now. 1-0. He rained down on Kingsley Coman like a storm, and it didn’t stop until he was repelled by the hands of Emi Martinez. 1-1. Then Aurelien Tchouameni came, and your stomach clenched for a 22-year-old in his first World Cup, because there was no sympathy for where he was going.

When he got there, Martinez embarked on a top-notch play, flipping the ball the other way to lengthen the moment and assert his power. He dove in just the right way, but Tchouameni jerked and missed. 2-1. The shriek hit Randal Kolo Muani, and he caught his nerve. 3-2, but time had run out for France. Gonzalo Montiel stepped forward, rolled the ball into the bottom corner and that was it.

No one remembers the entirety of a World Cup final, even if they have witnessed it in the flesh; As soon as the final whistle blows, it’s impossible to relocate every ebb and flow of the game in our mind. Instead, we’re left with a kaleidoscope of still images: Angel Di Maria causing Ousmane Dembele to go into crisis; Nicolás Otamendi crashing into the legs of Kolo Muani; Mbappé rolling away; Lionel Messi’s arms raised high; Mbappe rolling away again. Then a save by Martínez, a goal by Montiel.

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In the hours before kickoff, the hot air crackled with anticipation. The road from Doha to Lusail was clogged with traffic and the state-of-the-art metro-train came to a halt under the weight of thousands of people who flooded the stadium and the giant fan park within a couple of stops of each other. This World Cup still needed its definitive game, its enduring image, and surely in the course of this fantasy final -Argentina vs France, Messi vs Mbappé- they were going to achieve it. As it turned out, they got all the pictures they could have imagined.

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But the turning point, the moment you knew this was going to be Argentina’s trophy, was none of those. At the end of extra time, Hugo Lloris won a toss and chose France to take the first penalty. It was the statistically sound choice; the team that shoots first wins more often than it loses. But Messi had won another draw to choose the end to which they were taken, and he opted for the Argentine anger. As soon as the crowd at that end understood, his response was triumphant, and as Lloris walked to his place along the foot line, he might have considered that he had given more than he had gained. .

The extent of the disparity in support for the two teams had become apparent hours earlier. Thousands of Argentine fans had come to witness history, making this a home game in all but geography. There was hardly a French jersey or tricolor in sight: not along the supposedly designed Boulevard Lusail on the Champs-Elysées, nor along the wide walkways around this giant soup bowl of a stadium. Inside there were a few thousand France fans behind a goal, but the rest of the stadium was packed with Argentina’s stripes, interrupted only by the occasional group of bright white men wearing the traditional thawb.

It was clear that the stadium was more than a place: it was a vessel of support for Argentina, a cauldron in which to fulfill Messi’s destiny. Argentina arrived here with a defeat on their record, with a difficult penalty shootout against the Dutch, a much more choppy journey than that of the French. But they had enormous will and, to use a football cliché, strangely for a World Cup final, it felt for much of this game as if they wanted it more.

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His motivation was not to win the third World Cup in Argentina, but to win Messi’s first, his only one. When they won the 2021 Copa América after so many failures, Ángel Di María had scored the winning goal and Martínez had made crucial saves, but as soon as the whistle blew, everyone ran towards Messi. Because it was Messi’s ballast, and Messi’s catharsis too.

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Now they were desperate to see him lift the World Cup. There were moments here when it felt like the momentum had escaped them, like when Mbappe’s second goal rippled the net and took their breath away. Or when the referee signaled the point in overtime and the stadium went silent all night, his fans were shocked. But before the shootout began, when the referee pointed towards the goal surrounded by Argentine flags, at that moment it was done.

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