Argentina's forward #10 Lionel Messi (covered) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's first goal from the penalty spot during the Qatar 2022 World Cup football final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on December 18, 2022. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
Fans in Argentina douse reporter while celebrating World Cup win
02:05 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

American sports fans, if you don’t love soccer now (and yes, you can call it that — this whole “football versus soccer” thing is just stupid and unbecoming to global society), there might be no hope for you.

Argentina’s shootout victory over defending champion France in the men’s World Cup final on Sunday at Lusail Stadium in Qatar was a showdown between two of the most powerful soccer cultures in the world. And it didn’t just deliver: It created possibly the greatest championship game in the history of sport.

Amy Bass

The World Cup is coming to North America in 2026, so even if you missed Sunday’s clash of the soccer titans, you have four years to get up to speed on why this epic match serves as an exemplar of soccer’s greatness and its power to galvanize a truly global conversation about sport as a vehicle to inspire and transform.

Even before the first touch, the most obvious narratives of this final had already been written. It had been reduced by many as Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappé, positioning the teammates at Paris St-Germain (owned by Qatar Sports Investments) as the GOAT and the heir apparent — with Messi likely in his last dance, while Mbappé, already a champion four years ago when he was just 19, has so much more ahead.

For most of the match, it looked like Messi would grab the one thing missing from his illustrious career, almost casually scoring on a penalty kick just 20 minutes in. As France looked to have almost no control over play, a second goal for Argentina soon followed, a Messi touch on transition building a beautiful sequence — deemed by bestselling writer and soccer nut John Green “one of the greatest works of art our species has ever created” — that allowed Ángel Di María to get the ball inside the net.

But France, or at least Mbappé, was not done — he became the first men’s player since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966 to score a hat trick in a World Cup final — three goals by one player in a single game — even if France came up short.

And yet as thrilling as this final was, it is not the only story of this World Cup, a tournament that was as much about what comes next as it was about Messi. In the minutes before the start of the final, all of the juxtapositions, contradictions and incongruities that surrounded this tournament should have been exhausted but rather took one last spin, with the recorded voice of LGBTQ icon Freddie Mercury (who died of complications from AIDS in 1991) riling up the pregame crowd in a country known to squash LGBTQ campaigns.

Indeed, it bears repeating that there has been a lot to this World Cup that has not been beautiful, including the thousands of migrant workers who are reported by The Guardian to have died while transforming a country with little soccer culture into a land of air-conditioned stadiums. (Qatar’s World Cup chief in a British TV interview admitted to much lower but still sobering 400 to 500 deaths of migrants who readied the Gulf nation for the event.)

More tragic losses followed — the deaths of soccer writer extraordinaire Grant Wahl — a towering figure in the field as well as a really nice guy — and Qatari photojournalist Khalid al-Misslam.

Yet there was beauty to be found in this controversial and grief-diminished World Cup, particularly the story of Morocco. The run of the Atlas Lions, whose trip to the semifinals against France made it a first and only on many levels as they marched through what felt like a master class in post-colonial history — Belgium, Spain, Portugal — to inspire an enduring Pan-Arab spirit.

Just as Croatia announced itself to the world four years ago, Morocco, too, is just getting started, the nation’s investment in soccer bearing fruit lush and deep. While Morocco fell to Croatia in Saturday’s match for third place, in a multitude of ways this was its tournament, its fans flocking to Qatar in such numbers that Qatar Airways canceled flights the morning of its semifinal match, hoping to curb the overwhelming surge.

Yet if Morocco was the team of the tournament, Messi was its towering figure, his merch becoming more scarce than Taylor Swift tickets, crashing Adidas stores worldwide. His global superstardom helped soccer stay center stage amid all the chaos that has surrounded this Qatar World Cup for the last 12 years.

Not quite ready to be in the sport’s rearview mirror, he solidified foundations for what a generational internationa