A truly thrilling World Cup came to an end Sunday, as Lionel Messi and Argentina were crowned champions after a month of non-stop drama. Below, we look back on the tournament by examining the biggest winners and losers.
Winner: Lionel Messi
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He did it. He really did it.
Messi didn’t need the World Cup to cement his legacy as the best player in history. But he won it anyway, just for good measure, as if to ensure there would be no referendum on his greatness. Unlike in previous tournaments, Argentina wasn’t a miscellaneous assortment of underwhelming players being dragged to victories by Messi alone. The Albiceleste were an excellent team across the pitch, from eccentric goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to ferocious midfielder Enzo Fernandez and right up to vibrant forward Julian Alvarez. But it was still Messi, literally every step of the way throughout the tournament, leading his side and country back to the pinnacle. He scored in every round in Qatar, authoring some magical – and oftentimes scarcely believable – moments that will live on forever.
Against Mexico, he calmed the nerves. Against the Netherlands, he defied physics. Against Croatia, he twisted the competition’s best defender into a pretzel. And, to cap it all off against France, he scored in normal time, extra time, and the penalty shootout in the most remarkable World Cup final there has ever been and may ever be. There was no limit to Messi’s brilliance in Qatar. We were all witnesses. It was only fitting that the World Cup ended with Messi lovingly holding the trophy, like Diego Maradona 36 years ago, and being hoisted by his adoring teammates in celebration.
Loser: Cristiano Ronaldo
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The contrast between Messi’s crowning achievement in Qatar and Ronaldo’s rapid descent from Portugal’s talisman to largely irrelevant – and ineffective – substitute couldn’t have been more stark. The two, for better or worse, will always be intertwined, even if they can’t be compared any longer. Messi, with a beaming smile that’ll never be wiped off, left the World Cup a hero. Ronaldo, meanwhile, left in tears, having become a footnote.
Yes, he established a new record as the only male player to ever score in five different World Cups. That’s no small feat, and his incredible show of longevity may never be surpassed. But that was the lone highlight. It was all downhill from that first match against Ghana. Ronaldo tried and failed to claim a goal that wasn’t his. He upset his coach with a petulant reaction after being substituted. With his powers clearly waning, he was dropped to the bench. Portugal immediately looked better in his absence, a reality evident before this tournament started and only calcified in Qatar.
Ronaldo’s World Cup dream is gone. Strictly on the pitch, his status as an elite footballer has followed suit.
Winner: Kylian Mbappe
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Mbappe is the second player to score a hat-trick in the World Cup final. He is already the leading scorer in the history of World Cup finals. Now he’s only four goals shy of matching the all-time record for most goals at the World Cup. And he’s only turning 24 this week. This stuff almost doesn’t compute.
Mbappe is coming for all of the benchmarks in men’s football.
Nobody, not even Messi, can explode to life in an instant like Mbappe, who remains the most dominant singular attacking force in the sport. Every time the ball is at his feet, it spells danger for the opposition. Were it not for everything else that happened Sunday, his 97-second brace – including a searing volley that was equal parts sweet and venomous – would have gone down as an all-time World Cup moment. It still might.
He’s truly unstoppable. Barring injury, the Golden Boot winner in Qatar will obliterate all the records. He could also add another World Cup or two to his collection.
Losers: Anyone clinging to the GOAT debate
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Even the most ardent Ronaldo supporters – hello, Piers Morgan! – will have to contort themselves into uncomfortable knots to try to make the case that Messi isn’t alone on the mountaintop. The sole argument in that arsenal has vanished. There’s nothing left to say. At this point, Messi has transcended football and leveled up, entering the conversation for the crown as the greatest male athlete in history, full stop. Now there’s an actual debate.
Mbappe, when all is said and done, could have the only legitimate claim to threaten Messi’s throne. But that, hopefully, is a discussion that can wait for at least a decade. We have peace now. Let’s enjoy it as long as we can.
Winners: Morocco and African football
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“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said after the Atlas Lions made history by reaching the semifinals.
If you didn’t have a rooting interest in the World Cup, Walid Regragui’s lionhearted outfit instantly stole your affection. Even if you did have one, it was impossible not to be enamored by Morocco. The team won hearts and matches with its disciplined yet still madly entertaining style of play in Qatar.
“Morocco is ready to face anyone in the world,” Bounou said in the wake of wins over Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. “We have changed the mentality of the generation coming after us. They’ll know Moroccan players can create miracles.”
Morocco’s brilliant accomplishment and eventual fourth-place finish eclipsed every African team – how could it not? But the continent’s four other World Cup entrants made their mark and inspired in some way. Senegal reached the knockout stage despite superstar Sadio Mane’s absence. Tunisia beat France. Cameroon beat Brazil, and Vincent Aboubakar scored one of the tournament’s best goals. Ghana nearly qualified for the knockouts after pushing Portugal to the brink and renewing hostilities with Uruguay.
A word, too, on the African fans in Qatar, who livened up the entire event with their joyous and unrivaled support. Shakira really did say it best.
Losers: Neymar and Brazil
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Why did Brazil have seven players pushing inside Croatia’s half while nursing a 1-0 lead in the 116th minute of its quarterfinal tilt? It still beggars belief.
Brazil should have won that match and advanced to meet old nemesis Argentina in a semifinal for the ages. What could have been? That’ll be the prevailing sentiment for the Selecao for at least the next three-and-a-half years until we all reconvene again in North America.
Neymar’s spectacular goal against Croatia was dazzling, nimble in the buildup and emphatic in the finish. But it became moot. Brazil played some of the most sumptuous football in Qatar – that first half against South Korea, especially – but nobody will remember it.
Add to that the ignominy of seeing and hearing your hated rival celebrate its status as world champion right in your face until 2026. This one is going to sting for a long time in Brazil.
Winner: Neutral fans
On the field, this World Cup was immaculate. It had everything. Massive upsets. Group-stage drama in spades. Exquisite goals. Wild, improbable comebacks. A Cinderella run for the ages – and the history books. And a final – featuring the best player chasing immortality and his presumptive heir going blow-for-blow on the biggest stage in all of sports – exceeding the enormous expectations levied on the match prior to kickoff.
Football, and the fans who got to view the action, were the real winners.
Losers: Frugal European clubs
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Any thrifty clubs that hoped to remain prudent in the January transfer window are out of luck. Just ask James Rodriguez: Nothing inflates transfer fees like the World Cup, not even spendthrift Paris Saint-Germain trying to upend the market.
A collection of players previously on the verge of moving will cost significantly more when they eventually switch clubs. Cody Gakpo’s stock soared. Josko Gvardiol’s continues to rise. Benfica will make a gargantuan profit on Enzo Fernandez. Jude Bellingham enhanced his already sky-high reputation. Sofyan Amrabat is going to command a hefty sum. Azzedine Ounahi will fetch Angers several million pretty pennies. Mohammed Kudus is next in line to keep the conveyor belt moving at Ajax. Teams are circling Tajon Buchanan and Yunus Musah. The list goes on.
The January transfer window doesn’t lend itself to mega-money deals like its summer counterpart – there isn’t enough time, generally, for the same types of bidding wars to develop. But the timing of this World Cup could result in the craziest January window on record.
Winner: Peter Drury
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Sunday’s World Cup final, the most spellbinding match in tournament history, needed someone who could do the drama justice. Articulating it all, and making sense of the chaos, needed a master of the craft. Viewers luckily had Peter Drury to narrate the occasion.
He was at his poetic best every step of the way, adding grandeur to the moment and giving everyone chills in the way only he can.
“Argentina, champions of the world,” he roared after Gonzalo Montiel struck the decisive penalty in the shootout. “And a nation will tango all night long. Thirty-six years since Maradona and Mexico, here, finally, is a nation’s new throng of immortals. Messi will be sainted. France this time, denied, defied.”
Of his many memorable calls from Argentina’s win over Les Bleus at Lusail Stadium, he saved the best, naturally, for last. And for Messi. It was perfect.
“Lionel Messi has conquered his final peak. Lionel Messi has shaken hands with paradise,” he said as the Argentina captain prepared to lift the trophy. “The little boy from Rosario, Santa Fe, has just pitched up in heaven. He climbs into a galaxy of his own. He has his crowning moment.”
Bonus winner: Paul Childs
Reuters photographer Paul Childs should have won the Pulitzer on the spot for this instantly iconic image after Argentina’s shootout victor over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Put it in the Louvre.
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