Cope: France vs. Argentina is a heavyweight title bout for the ages
"This game shapes up to be the polish and shine of a top-rate European football team against the gritty South Americans"
This is a heavyweight title for the ages. History will be made on Sunday, either way.
The beautiful French team, with its multicultural kaleidoscope of players, have a chance to be the first team to repeat as World Cup champions since the Brazil teams of 1958 and 1962. This trophy has no handles and is quite hard to hang onto. I think there was at least one commentator, in this paper no less, who predicted injuries would lead to an early French exit. This French team, however, as with all great programs, is built to withstand absences and has a “next man up” philosophy.
Before we go on, a quick word for the defeated semifinalists. Croatia graced this tournament with a dominant midfield, a stingy defense and an opportunistic attack. They were thoroughly beaten by Argentina, 3-0, with Leonel Messi providing a goal from the penalty spot and a magnificent assist, spinning his defender and getting to the end line to cut the ball back for a tap-in. Apart from France, Croatia was the only team to return to the final four from 2018. As I remarked to our Croatian student at Battle Mountain High School after her team lost — on her birthday — there is no shame in losing a final and a semifinal in successive tournaments. Unfortunately, I know whereof I speak!
Morocco took the tournament over and became the de facto home team. Joyous crowds packed the stadiums when Morocco played and the national airline put on extra flights to Doha as the tournament progressed. One thing that fans love about these tournaments is being introduced to new players and countries. The Champions League features the same faces starring in new films with similar plots, occasionally changing jerseys. The tournaments rarely introduce us to a new character or leading man, such as Morocco’s Sofiane Boufal, from Angers in the French League.
Perhaps the most heart warming reminder that these are just games after all, came at the end of the semifinal, when Kyllian Mbappe swapped shirts with Achraf Hakimi and celebrated with his own team while wearing a Morocco shirt. Mbappe and Hakimi are close friends and teammates from Paris St. Germain’s club team. The duality of being teammates on a club and rivals on the international stage, is one of the things that makes the game so fascinating.
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Argentina will take the field on Sunday morning at 8 a.m. MST against France. The Argentines are attempting to lift their talisman, Leonel Messi, to his first World Cup title and the country’s third. Messi’s generation of players have lifted a Copa America but never a World Cup. The team hasn’t lost since falling to Saudi Arabia in their first match. They will try to become the first team since Spain in 2010 to lose their opening match and go on to win the whole thing.
Angel DiMaria and Messi both have over 100 caps (appearances) for Argentina and Nicolas Otamendi will earn his 100th on Sunday. They are assisted by the young guns, most notably Julian Alvarez, who can barely get a game for Manchester City, where he sits on benches watching Erling Haaland play football. Reliable deputies, Alvarez and Olivier Giroud both come into this game with four goals for the tournament, one behind their leading men Messi and Mbappe, who each have five. Who will earn the Oscars for leading men and best supporting actor?
This game shapes up to be the polish and shine of a top-rate European football team against the gritty South Americans. Messi has finally been embraced by the Argentine fanbase and accepted as one of their own. A reluctant hero, Messi never embraced the late night hijinks of his predecessor, Diego Maradona. Messi preferred to do his talking on the field, but somehow managed to lose four finals, three in the Copa America and one World Cup final. In 2021, after Maradona had passed away, Messi finally won a final and lifted the Copa America.
It was as if a weight had been lifted. The problem, however, was that it took place in an empty stadium in Brazil, due to COVID restrictions. This is his chance to reach for glory in front of his now adoring public. A victory Sunday will crown Messi’s career, put him next to Maradona on a pedestal and allow him to walk off into the Miami sunset. Look for him at an MLS stadium near you in the near future.
If Messi represents the ghost of Christmas past, then Mbappe is clearly the ghost of Christmas present. The young players who lit up this tournament, such England’s Jude Bellingham (19), Spain’s Gavi (18) and Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol — who defended so resolutely until Messi spun him around and put him on an NFT (we used to say, “posterized,” him.) — and Argentina’s Enzo Fernandez represent the ghosts of Christmas yet-to-come.
I expect the French team to sit back, crowd Messi into dead ends and cul de sacs, and then try to hit them on the break with Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele’s lethal speed on the wings; Giroud being the beneficiary of that work on the flanks. France will not commit so many numbers forward that they allow a goal like Argentina’s second against Croatia, where Alvarez countered from a corner by running a straight line with the ball, comically losing it three times and winning it back at the last moment to prod it into the net. The goal seemed like an amateur stage production of the famous 1986 Maradona goal against England. It will take more than that to beat this French team.
A goal by Argentina may draw the French out and force them to have more of the ball and try to dictate the game. A goal by France, conversely, will reinforce the tendency to sit back and wait for their moment to pounce on an errant Argentine pass. Expect a cagey affair in the first half, with a reaction by the team that falls behind in the second half. Let’s hope there are multiple goals in this game, but these finals often feature cautious approaches.
It’s been a great, if somewhat weird, tournament. The games have been televised at convenient times for U.S. audiences, at least for those of us who are early risers. Having the tournament during a school year offered a strangely communal experience, the likes of which we rarely have in contemporary society. The ratings for the Black Friday game between the U.S. and England must have the money men at FIFA and Fox Sports considering their options for future years. The standout moments were mostly in the third group games with simultaneous kickoff times leading to ever changing scenarios and drama. Let’s hope FIFA doesn’t do away with these moments in 2026. The quarterfinal matches were also full of drama and unexpected twists and turns; the late equalizers by Croatia and the Netherlands and the missed penalty by Harry Kane provided incredible suspense.
I hope your teams can qualify — looking at you Italy — and do well in the 2026 version. The United States’ young team will be a little bit older and wiser as they prepare to host. Let’s hope we free Gio Reyna and his creativity, as well as introducing some more of our Mexican-American players. This would follow the model of France, tapping into our native-born, children of immigrants. Mexico itself will hope to recover from this disaster of a World Cup and introduce a new generation of players, many born in the U.S., to emulate the Moroccan team by tapping into their own diaspora across these United States. England will once again dust themselves off and hope for a 60th anniversary of 1966 triumph.
Take care of each other, stick around and let’s do this again in four (well, three and a half) years.