Every four years, too many American sports fans choose to dismiss and deride those of us who thoroughly enjoy soccer — and appreciate the level of beauty and drama that a World Cup Final such as Argentina’s gripping victory Sunday over defending champion France presents.
We get it, you don’t think there’s enough scoring, the players frequently embellish injuries and championship contests shouldn’t be determined by something as arbitrary as penalty kicks, as Sunday’s match was in favor of Argentina and its finally-crowned superstar, Lionel Messi.
Still, despite the trepidation of FIFA holding its signature event in Qatar in November and December, the 2022 World Cup left us with several memorable moments, both good and bad, over the past several weeks, culminated by one of the most theatrical and thrilling matches in the beautiful game’s history.
First and foremost, the 35-year-old Messi wasn’t just a passenger in collecting the missing piece to his illustrious career. The magician netted two goals and converted a PK in the shootout Sunday to front Argentina to its first championship since Diego Maradona led the way to the 1986 title in Mexico City. This was presumed to be the final World Cup appearance for Messi, who reportedly could be headed to MLS in 2023. But he’s not necessarily done on the international stage after finishing the World Cup with seven goals in seven games, one behind dynamic French talent Kylian Mbappe. Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain teammate notched a hat trick Sunday to bring his side back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to level the match through 120 minutes.
The young Americans
With the next World Cup coming to North America in 2026, the U.S. men’s national team endured mixed results in its first appearance since 2014. The USMNT drew with Wales and England and survived the group stage with a 1-0 victory over Iran on a body-sacrificing goal by Christian Pulisic. But Gregg Berhalter’s inexperienced squad got bounced by the Netherlands in the Round of 16, and calls for a coaching change only heightened after Berhalter — without naming the player — publicly aired issues with who clearly was popular but little-used 20-year-old Gio Reyna.
The shows of support
Before their first game of the tournament against England, Iranian players declined to sing their country’s national anthem to show support for protests happening throughout Iran following the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini while in the custody of morality police. The German team also posed for a photo before its first match with their hands covering their mouths after FIFA banned the wearing of OneLove anti-discrimination armbands.
The early upsets
The tournament got off to a rousing start when Argentina lost its opening match to Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team in the field at No. 51 in the world FIFA rankings. One day later, Japan knocked off would-be powerhouse Germany, which failed to reach the knockout stage for the second consecutive World Cup. And Morocco defeated second-ranked Belgium en route to becoming the first African and Arab nation in history to reach the World Cup semifinals.
Cristiano Ronaldo has netted the most goals in soccer history for club and country (813), so even at 37, it was shocking to see Portugal’s legendary striker on the bench to start its Round of 16 match against Switzerland and again in its quarterfinal loss to Morocco. Already without a club team after Manchester United terminated his contract after he criticized the EPL club in an explosive interview with Piers Morgan, Ronaldo left the field in tears after the Morocco loss, likely his final World Cup appearance. Head coach Fernando Santos stepped down days later.
Grant Wahl’s passing
On a personal level, the sudden death of influential soccer journalist Grant Wahl on Dec. 9 while covering a match was devastating for the sportswriting and soccer communities. Touching tributes from fellow media members, players and figures from other sports poured in in remembrance of one of the game’s greatest storytellers. We only can imagine how Wahl would have loved and poetically described Sunday’s gripping finale.
Today’s back page
🏈 CANNiZZARO: Giants prove their mettle as they ‘dig deep’ for playoff-like victory
⚽ SEARS: Lionel Messi’s leadership erases any doubts in Argentina’s ‘dream’ World Cup run
🏈 VACCARO: Jets have no margin for error in playoff race after team calamity versus Lions
⚾ Cory Youmans not bitter despite costing himself $1.5 million on Aaron Judge ball
🏈 O’CONNOR: Zach Wilson’s bright spots can’t hide fact he doesn’t look like franchise QB
One up, one down
Barely one month ago, the Giants were 7-2 and the Jets were 6-3, and had fans of both teams wondering if they just might halt their respective playoff droughts.
While the Giants moved closer to their second postseason berth in 11 seasons and for the first time since 2016 with a 20-12 win Sunday night in Washington to improve to 8-5-1, the Jets lost for the fourth time in five games to fall to 7-7.
Zach Wilson had some encouraging moments and some shaky ones in his return to the starting lineup due to replacement Mike White’s rib injury. With two touchdown passes to tight end C.J. Uzomah, Wilson had the Jets in position for a win with a 17-13 lead until their previously stout defense somehow left Lions tight end Brock Wright all alone for a 51-yard touchdown scamper with 1:49 remaining.
Wilson also made a couple of on-the-money throws to help keep the Jets’ final drive alive, but inexcusable timeout management by head coach Robert Saleh left them little choice but to settle for a failed 58-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Even Giants fans had to be screaming for Saleh to use his timeouts in the final minute, rooting for the Jets to pin an eighth loss on the Lions, who held on to even their record at 7-7 with their sixth win in seven games.
The Giants had been headed in the opposite direction, too, with an 0-3-1 mark in their previous four games, including a 20-20 tie with the Commanders at home two weeks earlier.
But Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley continued their pushes for contracts beyond this season with solid if not spectacular performances, and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux and Dexter Lawrence led the defensive effort, even if defensive pass interference should have been called in the end zone on Washington’s final offensive play.
New York’s three primary basketball teams — the Knicks, Nets and St. John’s — continue to roll.
The Knicks have won seven in a row — including the last three on the road through Sunday’s win in Indiana — since Tom Thibodaux adjusted his rotation by dropping Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish, while increasing the roles of second-year guards Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride.
While the Knicks have held their opponents to 98.2 points per game in that stretch, they were led offensively on the road trip by their emerging Big 3 of Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. Each of them averaged at least 24 points on the three-game trip, with Brunson netting 30 twice after being questionable for the opener in Chicago with a contused foot.
The Nets are on a winning streak of their own, having taken six straight games and 10 of 11 to improve to 19-12 after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined for a whopping 81 points — including 26 in the third quarter from KD — Sunday in Detroit. According to the YES broadcast, the last time the Nets and the Knicks each had winning streaks of at least six games at the same time was during the 2004 season.
And then there’s the Red Storm, who improved to 11-1 with a win Saturday over Florida State, the final game before getting into the teeth of their Big East slate Wednesday night at Villanova.
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