30/05/2024

Lionel Messi finally gets his hands on the World Cup. (Image: @Argentina - Twitter)

The 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup has made headlines both on and off the pitch over the last four weeks, with the initial controversy over Qatar’s suitability as hosts being gradually overtaken by the quality and unpredictability of the football.

Argentina’s triumph and the epic final game against France will live long in the memory, but five players made an outsized contribution to the thrills and spills that we saw in arguably one of the best World Cups in years.

Lionel Messi

The greatest player of his generation lifting the game’s ultimate prize was a fairy tale ending for many on Sunday night (local time), in a tournament that will forever be known as Messi’s World Cup.

With his penalty in the final, the Argentinian captain became the first player to score in every round of a World Cup finals.

Yet it wasn’t just his goals that made Messi the player of the tournament, or the three assists he provided his teammates. The ability to find a way to inspire his team to glory after a disastrous start in their opening loss to Saudi Arabia was the true sign of greatness, much like fellow Argentinian idol Diego Maradona did in 1986.

The sight of Messi dragging his teammates into a huddle after scoring became a feature of Argentina’s games, focusing the group on their ultimate goal and ensuring no complacency.

Messi wasn’t just a star player in this World Cup, he was the most inspirational captain too.

Kylian Mbappe

If Messi was the star of the show in the Qatari desert, then Mbappe led the supporting cast.

Dominating the first two weeks, the mercurial Frenchman was unplayable at times against Australia and Denmark in the group stages, going on to destroy Poland in the Round of 16 to take his goal tally to five in just three matches.

Although he was largely marked out of the games against England and Croatia as the opposition set up to counter his brilliance, Mbappe’s mere presence created more space and opportunity for his teammates to shine.

Yet much like his rival Messi, it was the final where the French star shined most brightly, dragging his team back into contention with two goals in as many minutes when all seemed lost late in the game to force extra time.

The composure and self-belief he showed to dispatch a spot kick in the dying embers of the extra period, and again in the resulting penalty shoot-out, was beyond impressive.

Being the first player to score a hattrick in a World Cup final and lose, as well as winning the golden boot with eight goals, may be scant consolation, but Mbappe proved during this tournament that he is the worthy heir apparent to Messi’s crown.

Yassine Bounou

Prior to the tournament not much was spoken about the Moroccan goalkeeper, and his name may only have been familiar to fans of his club side Seville and his home nation, but Bounou had an inspired Word Cup.

A key part of a Moroccan defensive unit that conceded just one goal during three games to win Group F, Bounou become the hero in the knockout stages to help his country progress to an unlikely semi-final berth.

Having saved penalties from both Carlos Soler and captain Sergio Busquets in the Round of 16 spot-kick shoot-out to eliminate Spain, Bounou produced a stunning display in the quarter-final against Portugal.

His acrobatic saves to deny Joao Felix (twice) and Cristiano Ronaldo in the dying moments were truly world-class, allowing his team to cling on for victory and become the first African team to reach the last four.

Cody Gapko

The Dutch winger came into this tournament with a growing reputation in Europe, but his performances in Qatar have catapulted him onto the world stage.

Gakpo was a standout in the group stages, scoring in all three group games as the Netherlands romped through to the Round of 16..

His pace and dribbling ability was well known prior to the finals, but Gakpo’s ability to get on the end of crosses and use his 6’4 frame to convert chances with his head as well as his feet have caused some to dub him the new Ruud Gullit.

While a different player compared to his iconic Dutch predecessor, the 23-year-old has time on his side to shine at future World Cups, and is already attracting significant interest from Europe’s biggest clubs.

Expect this explosive attacking talent to write further headlines in the next few years.

Jude Bellingham

Four years younger than Gakpo but equally as impressive, 19-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham became the focal point of English dreams at this World Cup, highlighting why so many have tipped him for stardom.

Having played a starring role in the Three Lions’ demolition of Iran in their opening fixture, the young Englishman took centre stage again in the knockout stages.

With his team struggling to break down a resolute Senegal in the opening half of their second-round encounter, it was Bellingham who drove forward to lay on the breakthrough goal for fellow midfielder Jordan Henderson.

Just minutes later he showed his class again by breaking up play in his own half before instigating the counter-attack that resulted in Harry Kane’s decisive finish.

Even more telling was his reaction to his captain’s heartbreaking penalty miss in the subsequent quarter-final loss to France.

With Kane struggling to comprehend the enormity of his fateful spot-kick, it was his teenage midfield colleague who was first on the scene to offer a consoling word in his ear.

Teenager Jude Bellingham was first to console England captain Harry Kane after his penalty miss (Source: AP)

Bellingham is a future England captain in the making, and he will have many years ahead of him to inspire a different outcome.

Other youngsters to make their mark at Qatar 2022 have included Croatia’s outstanding centre-back Josep Gvardiol and young Argentinian midfielder Enzo Fernandez, both of whom look set to feature heavily at future tournaments.

But as we look back on the last four weeks of this footballing festival, the final word must surely go to the little maestro who finally fulfilled his destiny.

“We were destined to be World Champions and we are,” said Messi in a post-match interview.

A simple statement of fact that belies his understated personality, and one that epitomises the abiding memory of Qatar 2022.

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