Oral history: How Argentina won the 2022 World Cup, as told by Messi, Mac Allister & Co.

On Dec. 18, 2022, Argentina won the men’s World Cup in the most dramatic way possible, beating France in a penalty shootout after a breathless 3-3 draw in Lusail, Qatar.

The game was an instant classic, one of the best finals anyone could remember, packed with unforgettable moments. Lionel Messi delivered on the biggest stage of all, exorcising the ghosts of his 2014 heartbreak when Argentina were beaten in the World Cup final in Brazil. France’s Kylian Mbappé scored a hat trick but still ended up on the losing side. Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez starred with a jaw-dropping, last-gasp added-time stop from France’s Randal Kolo Muani before saving twice in the decisive shootout.

The win gave Argentina a third World Cup winners’ star on their shirts, following victories in 1978 and 1986. Only Brazil (with five), Italy (four) and Germany (four) have more. It also helped Messi live up to the legacy of the football-obsessed country’s other great hero — and architect of their 1986 triumph — Diego Maradona.

The drama of the final was a fitting end to Argentina’s roller-coaster ride through the tournament. It started with a surprise 2-1 opening defeat to Saudi Arabia, bouncing back with nail-biting group-stage victories against Mexico and Poland, and then knockout stage wins over Australia, Netherlands — in another shootout — and 2018 finalists Croatia.

To celebrate the first anniversary of Argentina’s World Cup win, ESPN spoke to 10 members of the squad — Messi, Martinez, Ángel Di María, Enzo Fernández, Lautaro Martínez, Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo De Paul, Nicolás Otamendi, Julián Álvarez and Cristian Romero — for the Star+ series “Champions, One Year On.”

This is their story, in their own words.

The World Cup group stage begins

Saudi Arabia 2-1 Argentina

Nov. 22, 2022. The tournament is two days old and already has its first great upset. Messi’s first-half penalty puts Argentina ahead, before second-half goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari see Saudi Arabia claim an historic win.

Lionel Messi: We were confident in what we were doing, with how we were playing. We were calm. We knew what we had to do. Everything was flowing easily. Nobody thought about that first game, which in theory was the easiest in the group.

Enzo Fernandez: We knew how important it was to win that first game. We didn’t expect [to lose].

Rodrigo De Paul: It was really tough. … With all due respect, we were the favourites [against Saudi Arabia], so it was a huge blow. For two days after that, you were asking yourself, “Why is this happening?”

Emi Martinez: What I remember most was going into the dressing room afterwards, obviously devastated. … I sat down, started taking off my boots and gloves. And you could hear everything. … I remember the silence.

Messi: After the loss, a million things were going through my head. They were difficult days.

Emi Martinez: I spoke to my psychologist a lot. I said, “I keep thinking that if we lose against Mexico I’m going home, and it’s killing me.” I’d go to sleep, wake up and think about that. … I said, “I can’t go back to Argentina in 10 days.” Those three days were so long.

Alexis Mac Allister: The next day [the coaching staff] let our families come in, to spend some time with them. I think it was important for the group. It isn’t easy being locked away in a hotel. It was really important to see our families, to pick up some good vibes.

Messi: I let that day pass, to forget about what had happened, and then I sent a message to the group. And that’s when we started to move forward. Everyone said what they thought. We didn’t have to throw it in each others’ faces. [The defeat] was bad luck. It was about continuing to believe in what we’d been doing. We couldn’t start to doubt. We didn’t have to change anything. We just had to forget about what had happened and start from scratch. Because if we won both games, we’d top the group.

Fernandez: That showed the strength of the group, the unity we had. We were all pulling in the same direction. … After the Saudi Arabia game, they were all finals. We said that. All or nothing. We had a meeting, and said that from the second game on, they were all finals for us. That’s how we felt, and that’s how we played.

Argentina 2-0 Mexico

Nov. 26, 2022. Coach Lionel Scaloni makes five changes to the team beaten by Saudi Arabia. After a tense first hour, Messi breaks the deadlock, shooting low into the bottom corner from outside the box, before later providing the assist for substitute Fernandez’s first international goal. Argentina aren’t going home yet.

Messi: It was hard, playing against Mexico. They’re always a difficult opponent. We’ve played them a lot of times, and we almost always win, but it’s always difficult.

Emi Martinez: Half-time in the Mexico game was intense. We weren’t sure of what we were doing, we weren’t ourselves. There were a lot of nerves.

Alvarez: I was on the bench, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. I’ve never felt such fear. We were this close to being out of the World Cup in the second game.

Fernandez: Whether we stayed at the World Cup or not depended on that result. We knew it was an important game in terms of morale, and luckily we were able to win. Leo [Messi] appeared with that magic left foot.

Messi: After that goal, the team started to play as we had been doing. A weight was lifted. And it was a different game. We knew the World Cup was starting again. The Mexico game was the departure point.

Nicolas Otamendi: That’s where we loosened up. For me it was one of the most important games at the World Cup. We had to win, at all costs, to not depend on other results.

De Paul: In the first half, things hadn’t gone well — quite the opposite. But that day, the only one who could make us win was the No. 10. And he did. Again.



Lionel Messi remembers his clash with Lewandowski at the World Cup

Lionel Messi looks back on his clash with Robert Lewandowski after the Poland striker’s Ballon d’Or comments.

Argentina 2-0 Poland

Nov. 30, 2022. This time, there’s no drama. Mac Allister and Alvarez — now established as starters, alongside Fernandez — both score in a 2-0 win, which means Argentina qualify for the round of 16 as group winners.

Emi Martinez: I knew that we were going to steamroller Poland. They just sent long balls up to [Robert] Lewandowski. When teams sit deep, we move the ball around, and it’s hard [for them] to keep a clean sheet. In every game, teams sit deep, and we always find a goal.

Messi: We respect all our opponents. After what happened with Saudi Arabia, even more so. But we’d studied Poland. If we were on form, we’d beat them easily.

Mac Allister: After Poland, it became a battle to the death. I’m not saying we felt like champions, but we were very optimistic that we could do it.

At 2-0, one moment catches the eye: an on-field clash between Messi and Poland’s Lewandowski. Messi had previously praised Lewandowski, saying he deserved to win the 2020 Ballon d’Or when it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had since been angered by Lewandowski’s apparent suggestion that those comments were insincere.

Messi appears to deliberately dribble at Lewandowski, taking him on, and then shrug off an attempted handshake from the forward.

Messi: What [Lewandowski] had said annoyed me. When I won the Ballon d’Or, and said what I said, I meant it. And for him to say what he said … it annoyed me. Later on we met, we spoke and it was a misunderstanding. … I dribbled at him because it was him. I was annoyed. I thought what he said wasn’t right. I was angry.

Di Maria: I saw it, you saw it, my grandmother saw it. That’s just what [Messi] is like. … Sometimes he keeps things bottled up inside. And then he ends up throwing it in your face in an interview, or doing it to you on the football field. That’s his way of talking, and I think it’s normal. There are people who talk, and don’t respect him, and don’t realize he’s the best player of all time.

You shouldn’t say anything to him. In the end, he gets fired up, and it’s worse.

Argentina enters the World Cup knockout stage

Argentina 2-1 Australia

Dec. 3, 2022. The round of 16. Argentina face Australia, who finished second — level on points with France — in Group D. Messi puts them ahead with his third goal of the tournament, pouncing on a loose ball inside the box, and Alvarez makes it 2-0.

Lionel Messi: I got the ball by chance. Ota[mendi] tried to control it. He saw me and he stopped. I tried to take it quickly, there wasn’t much space inside the box. I was close [to goal] and the keeper reacted late, because he didn’t expect it. It was a nice moment.

A late own goal from Fernandez gives Australia hope, and keeper Martinez is needed to make a smart save in the last seconds of added time from substitute Garang Kuol.

Emi Martinez: When [Kuol] controlled the ball, I saw that Nico [Otamendi] couldn’t help me. He controlled it so well that I had to go and deal with it. … [After making the save] Everyone hugged me except Cuti [Romero], who kicked me in the ribs. Typical Cuti. That’s his way of showing love.

Argentina 2-2 Netherlands (4-3 penalties)

Dec. 9, 2022. The quarterfinals are next, and after an injury scare in the days leading up to the game, influential midfielder De Paul is cleared to play. Four hours before Argentina’s quarterfinal with Netherlands is due to kick off in Lusail, archrivals Brazil are playing Croatia.

Messi: We left the hotel when Brazil went 1-0 up. When we were getting close to the stadium, [Croatia] scored the equaliser. In the dressing room, I was getting a massage and the penalty shootout started. I was on my phone. Kun [Aguero] was telling me about the penalties. I was face-down on the bed, reading his messages.

Fernandez: We were watching the shootout. I remember when Brazil were eliminated, we were shouting, happy, and Scaloni comes in saying, “What are you doing, you idiots? We have to play a game now!” The game with Netherlands was 10 minutes away, and we were there celebrating in the dressing room. But it was good for our morale.

Argentina vs. Netherlands turns out to be spectacularly bad-tempered. A World Cup record 18 yellow cards are shown by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz — eight for the Dutch, eight for Argentina and two for Scaloni and his assistant, Walter Samuel — as well as a late red card for Netherlands defender Denzel Dumfries.

Alexis Mac Allister: They started it.

Nicolas Otamendi: We can mix it with the best of them.

Messi: I get annoyed when people talk off the pitch, and show a lack of respect. I’ve never been like that. On the pitch, a million things can happen, but it stays there. Before the game, stirring things up or lacking respect, I’ve never done that, and I don’t like it when people do it to me … I didn’t like that.

Messi is again the inspiration for Argentina, setting up Molina’s first-half opener before converting a penalty. He celebrates by cupping his ears in front of the Dutch bench.

Otamendi: We didn’t know Leo was going to do that. I think it just came out in the heat of the moment. But they’d done a lot of talking.

Messi: I did it in the moment. And I regretted it straight away. As soon as I did it, I thought, “What an idiot. … All that’s missing now is that we don’t win.” These things happen.

From 2-0 down, Netherlands fight back. Forward Wout Weghorst scores twice, making it 2-2 in the 11th minute of added time after receiving the ball from a clever free kick, slipping underneath Argentina’s defensive wall. Goalkeeper Emi Martinez recovers to become the hero in Argentina’s first shootout of the tournament, saving the first two Dutch spot kicks from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis.

Argentina’s decisive fifth penalty is scored by substitute Lautaro Martinez.

Lautaro Martinez: I was going to shoot hard and to the right. And I don’t know why I paused [my run-up]. I used to take penalties like that, a long time ago. I missed a couple of penalties and I changed. And in that moment I decided to pause. I saw he was going that way, and I changed my mind.

[The celebration] was about what it meant, how I’d suffered, how I’d started the World Cup, how my ankle was, and what it meant to be in the semifinals.



Does Lionel Messi expect to play at the 2026 World Cup?

Lionel Messi reveals his future plans with the Argentina national team, a year on from their World Cup success.

Argentina 3-0 Croatia

Dec. 13, 2022. The semifinals. Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 with another Messi penalty, and a brace from Julian Alvarez.

Messi: We’d played Croatia at the last World Cup [in 2018] and they scored four against us. But this was different. We knew if we got through, Croatia were beatable.

Emi Martinez: The Croatia game was the best all-round game the team played.

Alvarez’s first goal is the result of a run that began just inside the Croatia half; his second follows one of the moves of the tournament, a mazy Messi dribble that twists defender Josko Gvardiol back and forth, before setting up Alvarez for a tap-in.

Julian Alvarez: I think it was my best game for the national team. When I scored the [first] goal, I didn’t even remember that I’d started from so far out. Later I watched it. I got a bit of luck, but it’s a great goal.

De Paul: People say that the game against Croatia was easier than against France [in the final] or Netherlands. But the reality is that, over the course of the game, we were just as comfortable in all three games. We were always better.

Argentina 3-3 France (4-2 penalties)

Dec. 18, 2022. The World Cup final.

Alvarez: I remember talking to Enzo [Fernandez], saying, “We’re going to play a World Cup final.” He was anxious for the game to arrive. But I wasn’t. I wanted the game to be over. I almost didn’t want to play.

Emi Martinez: My dad was saying do things well, don’t overplay it, don’t make mistakes. Everyone was afraid of making a mistake, but I was thinking just the opposite. I’m going to play like I’ve played all my life, without fear, with confidence. Whatever happens, I’m playing a World Cup final.

Messi: I didn’t want to even look at the trophy. They say you don’t look at it, you don’t touch it. So I didn’t, just in case.

Scaloni — as he had done throughout the tournament — tweaks his team again, starting Di Maria on the left wing. Di Maria rewards his manager by providing the final touch to a lightning-quick counterattack, making it 2-0 in the 36th minute after Messi had put Argentina ahead from the penalty spot.

Messi: Our counterattack was amazing. So fast. It was a great goal.

Di Maria: It was a spectacular move between three players, with one or two touches, as if they were playing in their neighbourhood. Inexplicable. Incredible.

Argentina look to be heading for a straightforward win, until two goals in two minutes from Mbappé make it 2-2, forcing extra time.

Alvarez: We played a great game until the 70th minute or something. And then in five minutes, everything changed.

Messi: I was angry, because the goal was down to me losing the ball, even if it was halfway up the pitch. It was our ball.

Messi’s goal comes in the 108th minute. Hugo Lloris saves Lautaro Martinez’s shot, and Messi is there to bundle the ball over the line.

Lautaro Martinez: We were celebrating. We hadn’t seen the assistant referee lift the flag. The bench came to celebrate with us. The referee raised his hand, and we thought it had been disallowed. Then he pointed towards the centre circle, and we celebrated again. We celebrated three times!

Julian Alvarez: When we made it 3-2, I said, ‘Well that’s that, nothing else is going to happen.’ We were on the bench, watching the clock. [Angel] Di Maria was crying. And then they scored, and he was still crying.

Incredibly, that wasn’t that. In the 116th minute, France are awarded a penalty for a handball, and Mbappé converts to make it 3-3, though there was still time for one more moment of unbearable tension. In the 123rd minute — seconds from a penalty shootout — France substitute Kolo Muani finds himself through on goal. His shot is low and powerful, headed for the bottom corner. Emi Martinez sticks out a long leg and makes the save.

Mac Allister: I think I was one of the only ones who reacted. They were all in shock. Nobody could believe it.

De Paul: I didn’t see it, thank God. I was sat down, with ice on my leg. … I saw [the save] two or three days later. I couldn’t believe it. It’s iconic. It’s a moment that will go down in history.

Otamendi: I realised I wasn’t going to get there [to the ball]. I tried to clear it with my toes. But then the left foot of “the beast” [Martinez] saved it. I think our hearts stopped. … Argentinians live to suffer. It had to be that way.

Emi Martinez: If I come further off my line, he’d chip me. If I stay on my line, he has the whole goal to aim at. I stayed somewhere in between. He says, “If I control it, he takes it off me, I can’t go over him, so I’ll hit it.” I leave him that space, and when he hits it, I spread myself and I block it. It could have gone in, if the shot was anywhere else it was a goal. And that’s luck. I gambled. … It could have gone in, or not. But it stopped here [pointing at his leg].



What’s it like to win a World Cup final on penalties?

Argentina’s players remember how they felt during their penalty shootout win over France in the World Cup final.

On to penalties. Messi and Mbappé had already taken three between them during the game, scoring all three. They would go first in the shootout, too.

Romero: I kept thinking, “F—. After all that, this can’t end with a penalty shootout.” I remember that Leo took one, and scored. Mbappé scored. After that, I didn’t see any more. I was on the floor, praying.

Emi Martinez: I was calm. I knew that if I saved one, I’d put pressure on them. [The save from Kingsley Coman] was key. But I made a mistake. I didn’t save it with my hands. I saved it with my chest, it went through my hands.

Romero: Dibu made a save, and I threw myself to the floor. I was on my knees. [Coach] Pablo [Aimar] came over and said, “Get up, get up, don’t be a coward, watch.” But I couldn’t. I started praying even more. I prayed to God, to all the Saints, to the Virgin.

After Martinez saves from Coman, France midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni puts his penalty wide.

Emi Martinez: Look at this guy’s face and tell me he isn’t nervous. I could see from the goal that he was dead. And I was thinking that if he missed, they were halfway out and we’re champions.

Argentina’s fourth penalty taker is defender Gonzalo Montiel. He scores, and Argentina are champions.

Messi: We were calm because Dibu [Martinez] had kept two out. We had more of a chance. I told [Montiel] that it was going to end there, that it was all over.

Alvarez: I didn’t talk to him. But I saw some of my teammates asking whether he was going to take it, if he wanted to, because he didn’t look so good. I think Lautaro told him he could take the kick, he was fifth. But when “Cache” is determined, he never fails. I think he’d taken eight or nine penalties before and scored them all. He wasn’t going to let us down now.

Romero: It’s a moment that stays with you. I achieved the biggest thing a footballer can dream of. I dreamt about this so much. I remembered some beautiful moments, some not so beautiful, what I’d done to get there. … Everything goes through your head in five minutes, and you’re in tears.

Messi: I didn’t sleep with the cup. It was just a photo. We were at the hotel. We had [the trophy] on the bed. We took a couple of photos, and posted them on social media.

After Argentina become World Cup champions

The focus, of course, is on Messi. Previously, his lack of a World Cup had been held up as proof that he could not aspire to “greatest of all time” status. Not anymore.

Messi: My family had suffered a lot more than me. The joys, as well as the defeats. Putting up with all those years of criticism with the national team. My mum, my dad, my brother, my sister, my nephew who lives in Argentina and grew up there with all that. Always criticism, always killing me. It was a bit like saying, “That’s it, we did it, the biggest thing there is, the World Cup. That’s it, it’s over.”

Fernandez: I had 500 WhatsApp messages on my phone, easily. Family, friends, acquaintances … I tried to reply to everyone. It took a while.

Emi Martinez: It brought the country together: the rich, the poor, the middle class. That’s what gave me the most satisfaction.

Messi: I knew God wanted me to be world champion, that he was going to give it to me. I always believed in that. There were a lot of big obstacles along the way. I really suffered. I had a bad time. Me, my family, the people who love me. It was very unfair. People said all kinds of things. But I don’t bear a grudge. With humility and in silence I did my job.

It’s a victory for me, having turned that situation around. Winning over the people of Argentina. At times I was questioned. Today 95 or 100% of Argentinians love me, and that’s beautiful.

Thoughts soon turn to the future, and whether Messi will stick around to lead this new generation at the next World Cup in 2026.

Messi: Time will tell if I can get to it or not. I’d be at an age [39] where normally, you wouldn’t play a World Cup. I said I didn’t think I’d be there. It felt like I was retiring after the World Cup and quite the opposite, now I want to be there more than ever. After suffering for so many years, I want to enjoy it … but with my age, the normal thing would be not to be there. Maybe it goes well at the Copa America and everything is in place to carry on. Maybe not. Being realistic, it’s difficult.

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