Wednesday 1st June 2022 – The Finalissima – Wembley Stadium, London
“Don’t forget to use the hashtag FUT in your social media pictures” boomed the stadium announcer, causing the fans around us to start speculating on what FUT actually stood for? In truth nobody really knew, unless you had already read your £6 match day propaganda booklet (stretching it to call it a programme) and could claim, with justified authority it was the FIFA Ultimate Team, something to do with online gaming.
It isn’t often that we doff our caps to the footballing authorities when it comes to ticketing but UEFA got this one right – ticket prices ranged from £25 to £99, which got you a padded Level 2 seat and a free drink. Unsurprisingly, all 87,250 tickets were snapped up. Any fears of a repeat of the disorganised and dangerous scenes we had seen both at Wembley last summer and at the Champions League Final were dispelled, with digital ticketing working a treat. Whilst this was a random cup, shoe-horned into a brief gap before the start of the Nations League (and suiting Italy who would be facing England in a few days time), both sides would be bringing quality squads and it would be a fine way to top off the season in England.
The concept of a game between the European Champions and South American Champions isn’t new – the “game” has been played twice before, firstly in 1985 when France were the winners and again in 1993 when Argentina beat Denmark. Since then we’ve had the FIFA Confederations Cup, pitting the confederation champions against each other as a dry run to the FIFA World Cup. Now that tournament has been shelved, bringing back the one-off game was the idea of UEFA.
Games at Wembley have, in recent years been rather sterile. The 2020 European Championships saw some atmosphere for the England games against Germany and Denmark but all of that was forgotten by the spiteful nature of the final against Italy, the repercussions of which mean England have to host Italy next week behind closed doors in the Nations League.
But tonight the stadium buzzed with noise from the moment the teams entered the pitch. A special award was given to Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, playing his 117th and final game for the Azzurri, although after a torrid first 45 minutes at the hands of the marauding Argentinians, he was withdrawn.
Whilst it may be a bit disingenuous to suggest that a majority of fans had come to watch Lionel Messi, the reception he got pre, during and post-match would indicate otherwise. Despite coming to the twilight of his career at nearly 35 years old, the seven times Ballon d’Or winner rolled back the years and gave a performance worthy of his reputation.
It was a deserved win for Argentina and had it not been from the impeccable positioning of Italian keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, it could have been more than just the three they scored. Messi set up Lautaro Martinez for the first in the 28th minute, holding off an Italian defender before squaring to the Internazionale forward to tap home, then the goal scorer turned provider in the last minute of the half, feeding Di Maria who lobbed the Italian keeper to double the score.
The second half saw the South Americans dominate. Di Maria almost scored a spectacular third, a volley from 35 yards after an inch perfect corner from Messi, whilst the Argentinian skipper ran 80 yards with the ball and was denied by a smart save by Donnarumma. In injury time Messi was the provider once again, setting up Dybala to score the third.
In the grand scheme of world football the result will mean little. The worrying signs are there, however, for the Italians. Another defeat on the eve of the Nations League which will be proceeded by the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which for the second tournament in a row will see them watching from home rather than playing in the head of the Middle Eastern desert. For Argentina they will undoubtedly be looking at one last Messi-inspired tournament come November, hoping that they avoid the problems that have dogged their major championship performances since winning the World Cup 36 years ago.