Fairytale for Messi, lenient refereeing: Eight talking points from the World Cup

Qatar tournament in review - Mbappé's greatness; Morocco make history; infamous Infantino

Argentina's Lionel Messi and France's Kylian Mbappe pushed each other to new heights at the World Cup. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Messi’s fairy-tale showed everything good about sport

Lionel Messi was proclaimed publicly as Diego Maradona’s successor by the man himself in 2006 when he was just 18 years of age. Five World Cups and 26 games later, aged 35 he finally got his hands on the trophy, following in the footsteps of El Diego in 1986.

Before this World Cup, he’d never even scored in the knockout stages, this time he scored in each knockout game, but it was two of his assists – a reverse pass that no other player in the world would see to Nahuel Molina against Netherlands, and a brilliant dribble turning Josko Gvardiol inside out against Croatia – that were his standout moments in the knockouts.

But maybe Messi’s key moment of the whole World Cup was against Mexico in the group stage. Argentina began the tournament losing to Saudi Arabia in one of the great shocks, and their first half against Mexico was one of the worst of the most forgettable. With his team looking nervous and potentially heading home, up stepped Messi. After 64 minutes he rifled a low shot into the corner from outside the box. Argentina were safe and they settled into the tournament from there.

The importance of penalty-saving keepers

It is one of those unwritten rules of soccer that eccentric keepers make great penalty savers. Think Ricardo for Portugal against England in Euro 2004. Ricardo provoked Darius Vassell by taking off his gloves before a penalty and then proceeded to save and follow it up by scoring the winner. Emi Martinez had already shown his penalty saving credentials in last year’s Copa America against Colombia, saving three penalties, and he saved twice against the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-final.


The Argentina goalkeeper spent the shoot-out trying every mind game possible on the French, throwing away the ball and then provocatively dancing after saving Kingsley Coman’s penalty. Martinez won the Golden Glove for best goalkeeper in the tournament, which he celebrated in typically bonkers Martinez fashion, making a crass thrusting motion with the trophy.

But he will be forgiven and forever be a hero in Argentina for his penalty heroics (and his last-minute save in normal time from Randal Kolo Muani). Dominik Livaković of Croatia, Bono of Morocco and Wojciech Szczęsny also stood out for saving their teams from the spot.

By contrast, Hugo Lloris for France has saved zero of the nine penalties France have faced in major tournaments, and he could have perhaps done better for Messi’s penalty after eventually guessing the correct way. England fans will be thinking, if only Harry Kane hit the target ...

Infantino makes things about himself

Infantino is the latest in a long line of Fifa administrators not to cover themselves in glory during a World Cup. From his infamous opening speech – “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel a migrant worker” – to the bitter end with his refusal to leave the stage promptly when Messi collected the World Cup trophy, Infantino has been keen to stay in the limelight.

A report from Ken Early and Gavin Cummiskey found Infantino and Greek MEP Eva Kaili have made similar statements in speeches praising Qatar. Both speeches had questioned Europe’s right to dispense “moral lessons” or “lectures” to the country. Infantino’s legacy so far as Fifa boss has been to bring the World Cup to controversial Russia and Qatar, while he is not quite Sepp Blatter, he has hardly proven to be the reformative figure for Fifa many would have hoped.

Mbappé shows his greatness

In a soccer world dominated by club football, Kylian Mbappe feels like a throwback, following in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo in his legacy being so strongly attached to the international game. Mbappé's international career is in the stratosphere, evoking comparisons to the great Pelé, and matching the Brazilian legend with 12 goals in 14 games, and scoring a hat-trick in the World Cup final.

Mbappé's World Cup final was fading into irrelevance until he sparked to life with 15 minutes to go. He carried the load for France in a pulsating final act and was only a terrific Martinez save away from winning back-to-back World Cups at only 23-years-old. Mbappé seems sure to blow away the all-time World Cup goals record, at only four goals behind Miroslav Klose. As the French number 10 his style might be different from Michel Platini and Zidane, but his decisiveness and leadership on the pitch is of a similar vein.

Lenient refereeing

Referees are under orders to whistle for fewer fouls than they once did, throughout all levels of football. In the group stages, there were fewer fouls conceded per game and fewer red cards than any tournament this century, and the fewest yellow cards in any tournament since 2014. A nasty game between the Netherlands and Argentina, which saw 18 yellow cards and a red given out by the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz raised the average, but most games went by without any risk of red cards.

The leniency saw midfield battlers take advantage, sometimes taking four or five fouls until they were finally booked. Referees were slated after games for their performances from the likes of Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Bruno Fernandes, but few could have complaints about the performance of Polish referee Szymon Marciniak in the final, with one particularly brilliant call spotting a dive by France’s Marcus Thuram in the penalty area.

Polish referee Szymon Marciniak officiates during the World Cup final. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Morocco make history

Apart from Argentina lifting the trophy, easily the most notable story of the tournament was Morocco making the semi-finals, the first time an Arab or African side had made it that far in the World Cup. They didn’t do it through an easy draw either, beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal en route to the final four. Morocco’s defence was rock solid, the only goal they conceded in the tournament until they lost to France was an own goal against Canada.

Injuries and fatigue eventually took their toll on a thin squad, with three of the starting back four either missing or going off injured in the semi-final. While defensive in their approach, Morocco also showed some north African flair with technical passing from the back and skills up front from Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal.

While Morocco was the only African or Asian team to make it that far, several other African and Asian teams had memorable tournaments. Senegal made the knockout stage, while Ghana, Tunisia and Cameroon all registered victories, the latter beating Brazil for the first time in their history. Japan remarkably beat both Spain and Germany, while Saudi Arabia were the only team to beat Argentina all tournament. Such results bode well for the global game.

Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi and midfielder Hakim Ziyech both enjoyed excellent tournaments. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Young players stand out early, old-timers make difference

One of the big early stories of the tournament was the travails of Belgium, with their star player Kevin De Bruyne saying that their team was “too old” to win the World Cup. It turned out to be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for De Bruyne and Belgium as they crashed out in the group stages and early on, much of the best play was by young players – Jude Bellingham, Mohammed Kudus and Pedri to name a few.

But as the tournament progressed, two players inflicted their wealth of experience on the tournament – Modric and Messi – with 37-year-old Modric leading Croatia to third place. Angel Di Maria rolled back the years in the World Cup final at 34 and was the star of showpiece even until his substitution. The story of Modric in particular will give hope to players in their 30s that one last hurrah may be possible by the time 2026 comes around.

Luka Modric of Croatia after his team won the third place playoff. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty

Was the money spent worth it for Qatar?

It was fitting that one of Qatar’s final public acts of the World Cup was for their emir to place a black bisht on Lionel Messi before he lifted the trophy. The bisht covered part of Messi’s Argentina shirt, including the national badge, during the ceremony – ensuring that many future images of the trophy lift will remain a reminder of whose World Cup this was. Qatar managed to quell protests from the players over the One Love armband, and even got to gloat when Germany protested by covering their mouths and then lost against Japan.

But with €200 billion spent to essentially improve the perception of Qatar to the world, many will be asking was it really worth it, despite the quality of the football on display.

Ken Early: You couldn’t make up the madness of this World Cup final and Messi’s Hollywood endingOpens in new window ]

It brought considerable attention on to a small nation many in the world would not have thought about much before, and brought greater scrutiny on their laws that are at odds with western democracies, particularly relating to homosexuality. While it was positive to see the World Cup come to an Arab country, the plight of migrant workers has cast a shadow over events and provided an unavoidable backdrop.

David Gorman

David Gorman

David Gorman is a sports journalist with The Irish Times