My favorite games of the last year

Graphic by Isaac Janiak Stein

2022 brought a whirlwind of sporting excitement from the Super Bowl to the US Open, the World Cup, and the NBA Finals. We witnessed stars emerge and a plethora of aging legends leave their last marks on their respective sports. The following are the games and matches that set a high standard for sporting greatness of the past year. While I am biased to my favorite sports, teams, and players 2022 pushed me into new corners of the athletic universe where I immediately set up camp. Here are my favorite games of the year:

Honorable Mentions:

  • March Madness Elite Eight – Duke vs. Arkansas: One of Duke’s best games of the season, a tight and exciting matchup that sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four.
  • NBA Playoffs R1, G1 – Celtics vs. Nets: An incredible way to start the Celtics’ first-round sweep, capped off by an awesome buzzer-beater by Tatum.
  • US Open Round of 16 – Frances Tiafoe vs. Rafael Nadal: A huge win for such an exciting rising star and growing NY fan favorite in Tiafoe over a legend having a great year.
  • World Cup R16 & Qfs – Morocco vs. Spain & Portugal: Back-to-back upset wins in PKs against Spain, and great defense against Portugal to become the first Arab and African country to make it to the WC semi-finals.
  • Wimbledon Quarterfinals – Rafael Nadal vs. Taylor Fritz: A incredibly entertaining back-and-forth 5-set classic, easily one of my favorite of the year.

10. An early thumping: Duke Men’s Basketball @ Carolina: 87-67

Watching Duke go out and clobber Carolina on their home floor was an absolute joy, but it’s unfortunately the least memorable out of our three matchups with them last season. Much overshadowed by the Blue Devils two losses in their last home game and the Final Four, this game at the Tar Heels was one of Duke’s best of the season, and probably the most fun. Duke led for the entire game and far outshot and out rebounded UNC. Not only did AJ Griffin look absolutely unstoppable and exploded for 27 points, but really no one on Duke had a bad game. For all of their great close games last season, it was really fun to see them demolish Carolina 87-67 for Coach K’s last game in Chapel Hill.

9. Backs against the wall: Boston Celtics @ Milwaukee Bucks, NBA East Semifinals Game 6: 108-95

Facing elimination, and coming off of an embarrassing loss at home, the Celtics’ backs were against the wall in Game 6 in Milwaukee. They went into the Conference Semifinals holding home court advantage, but after inconsistent performances at home, Boston had to beat the defending champions to stay alive. It was a back and forth game all night, but despite 41 points and 20 rebounds for the reigning Finals MVP, the Celtics put Milwaukee away to push a game 7. The contest was thrilling and Boston’s statement win was propelled by 46 from Tatum. It was a tense matchup that set up a blowout win back in Boston to eliminate the Bucks. While it came before other great games in the Celtics’ Eastern Conference Finals and Finals series’, this was the win that set the fire under them for the rest of their deep playoff run. It was a passionate and decisive showing, and one of my favorite games of the whole season.

8. Suspend your disbelief: Carlos Alcaraz vs. Frances Tiafoe, US Open Men’s Semifinals: 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-3

Coming into this semifinals match, Frances Tiafoe was on a tear. He had already handedly defeated top 15 ranked Diego Schwarztman, upset #2 seed Nadal, and cruised past top 10 seed Andrey Rublev. After dominant play in three straight matches he wasn’t supposed to win, you had to suspend your disbelief watching Tiafoe march to the semifinals. Unfortunately for the Maryland native, Carlos Alcaraz stood in his way, a player for whom ‘suspending your disbelief’ came with every match he played. It was the perfect storm. An American player on the rise in NYC, especially in a time without many great American male players, facing a physics-defying Spanish phenom on his way to the youngest Number 1 seed in tennis history. The match didn’t disappoint. After going down 2 sets to 1, Tiafoe was able to fight back into the match and push the semifinals to a deciding 5th set. The two sets Tiafoe won were both decided in tight tiebreakers, and he almost beat someone who looked unbeatable all tournament. Although Alcaraz ultimately won the 5th set and the match, it was a hugely entertaining look into the future of tennis.

7. A nostalgic goodbye: Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal (Europe) vs. Jack Sock/Frances Tiafoe (World), Laver Cup Doubles: 6-4, 6-7(2), 9-11

While Serena’s last tournament before retirement showed flashes of amazing play and her former self, the end to Roger Federer’s career is on this list for a very different  reason. 

Nostalgia and emotions carried Federer onto the court for the Lavar Cup in September. Playing in the final match of his career, in the same city where he won so many unforgettable Wimbledon trophies, side by side with his greatest rival and opponent, the perfect final stage was set.

It wasn’t Federer’s play that made this match special – he actually looked pretty ready to retire for most of the match. Seeing him play tennis for the last time was powerful because of the nostalgic emotions it carried with it. 

On one side of the court, next to Federer, stood Nadal, an equally aging legend and career rival of his. On the other side stood Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock, two younger players that were in the position to inherit the sport, in part, upon his retirement. This was one final match. A poetic send off.

As an athlete, there’s no perfect way to end your career. Some quit while they are ahead, saying it’s better to throw in the towel while you’re on top. Others play until they have nothing left to give, even at the risk of worse performance at the end. Some leave on a championship, and some are forced out by injuries. Federer was battling injuries for many of the past five years since he last won a grand slam in 2018. COVID, combined with his string of injuries, meant that he didn’t play at all after Wimbledon 2021. This all built to his announcement in summer 2022 that he would be rehabbing one last time to get ready to play doubles with Nadal in London to cap off his career. 

You can see why these circumstances and his steep decline in performance meant that this final match was fueled by memories, emotions, and nostalgia for his amazing career. Aside from the sheer awesomeness of seeing him play side by side with Nadal, it turned out to be a great match. White it came down to a final third set tie break that went down to the wire, the two legends eventually lost 8-10. 

Even though Federer didn’t play great, and it wasn’t super competitive or exciting play, witnessing his final match and seeing him step off the court, unable to control the tears streaming down his face, was an incredible moment. It was so special to see him joined on court by Nadal, and on the sidelines by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the four men that dominated together for almost 20 years. 

Not many sports have the capacity for moments like tennis does. How often do you see two of the greatest players ever, two fierce rivals for their entire careers, come together and side by side cry together? This final match of his 24 year career was a beautiful send off for one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

6. A miracle… no three: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Buffalo Bills, NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: 42-36 (OT)

Aside from Tom Brady’s 25 point comeback in the Super Bowl, this was the craziest football game I’ve ever seen. I thought this game was over at least three times before it actually ended. 

Some of the best games in any sport are the ones that swing back and forth and back again. With the Bill’s touchdown and 2 point conversion with less than two minutes to go, I thought the game was over. And then, with a minute to go when Malholmes responded, I thought it was certainly over then. Yet again, I was wrong! When Josh Allen through a laser down the middle with 13 seconds left, I jumped out of my seat and marveled at the ridiculous ending I had just witnessed: three touchdowns in under two minutes. 

Low and behold, another miracle was hiding on the Kansas City sideline. I could not believe my own eyes when they forced the game to overtime with such an unfathomably small amount of time. At that point, when the Chiefs got the ball, there didn’t seem like any universe where they don’t go down to the endzone and win. It was just that kind of game. There was an offensive energy between the two teams at the end that I’ve never seen before. It was incredible to watch. As a non-football fan, I’m surprised this game made my list, but how could it not?

5. Yellow cards and drama galore: Argentina vs. Netherlands, World Cup Quarterfinals: 2-2(4-3)

As a non-soccer fan, this past year I was totally infatuated with the World Cup, and how could I not be. Argentina and Messi pulled me in immediately. It was so clear how beloved and meaningful the sport is to billions around the world. Soccer has a unique ability to get everyone incredibly invested in the tournament, even if they’ve never watched a game before. 

After jumping on the Argentina bandwagon, I felt like the most passionate fan in the world after just a couple games. I was pulled in by Messi’s incredible passing, Emi Martinez’s unreal saves, and the whole team’s passion. After a close win over Australia solidified by another amazing save in the box from Martinez, the men in their iconic blue and white faced a formidable opponent in the Netherlands. 

And what an amazing game. Late in the matchup, after Argentina went up 2-0, tempers started to flare and the penalties were flying like crazy. And after a foul and a blast into the Dutch bench by Paredes. Then, in the one hundredth, at the end of stoppage time, the Dutch equalized on a beautifully executed set play and sent the game to extra time. Argentina had many chances to capitalize in extra time, but the score remained even at 2-2 going into penalties. 

You could feel the pressure and stress peaking, propelled even more by the record number of yellow cards given, and altercations earlier in the game. And, as he’s done so beautifully in the tournament, Martinez saved the first two penalties. That gave the Argentinians the edge they needed to inch out of a close quarterfinal win in penalties 4-3.

4. The penultimate, 100th, and 1,201st win: Duke Men’s Basketball vs. Texas Tech, NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen: 78-73

Despite a win that was too-close for comfort, Duke came into their Sweet Sixteen matchup against Texas Tech with new confidence. They held off Tom Izzo and Michigan State, finishing the game with a strong attack to shut the door on the Spartans. Facing Texas Tech was a different beast, though. The Red Raiders had one of the best defenses in the country, and they matched up well against Duke. Many thought this would be the final stand of K’s career, and it certainly looked that way in the first half of the game.

The Blue Devils struggled offensively and went into the locker room at halftime down four points. I don’t know what the legendary coach said to his team after their poor performance put them 20 minutes away from an early tournament exit and a premature end to his career, but whatever was said obviously worked like magic. Duke totally flipped the script in the second half.

Though the game stayed close as the two teams stayed locked in competition, swapping the lead over and over, the Blue Devils were historically electric on offense. Duke shot over 70% from the field in the second half against a team that held their opponents to 38% shooting all season. And, in the final stretch of the game, they lit up the Red Raiders defense, hitting 8 shots in a row to slam the door and head to the Elite Eight,

Multiple Blue Devils contributed in big ways. Paolo Banchero scored 22 points, and 4 other Dukies scored over 10 points, including Jeremy Roach, who put Texas Tech away in the final two minutes with back-to-back jumpers. Roach had been contributing well all season, and played a big role in the Devils’ late win against Michigan State, but he really emerged as an offensive threat late in this Sweet Sixteen game.

While Duke played better in the next round against Arkansas, and that was the game that sent them to the Final Four, Texas Tech was a much better game. It was more competitive and tense, and came down to the last possession. The Blue Devils were down for a lot of the game, and showed their fire in fighting back to get the tough and memorable win. 

The victory marked the penultimate win of Coach K’s career, obviously coming before a tragic Final Four loss. It was also his 100th win in the NCAA Tournament, the 1,201st of his career, and a game that will live on in my memory of his final season.

3. Serena’s last hurrah: Serena Williams vs. Anett Kontaveit, US Open Women’s 2nd Round: 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2

The last game or match of a legend’s career tends to remain in our memories because it’s the time we honor their achievements, not because they went out with a bang. While there are some exceptions, most final moments are special because we get a chance to honor a player’s career and witness their last time in the sport.

Following Serena’s announcement that the US Open would be the final tournament of her career, the expectations for her performance were clearly low. Going into the grand slam, Serena was coming off multiple bad losses, and it looked likely that she was going to lose her first match of the tournament. The US Open certainly prepared for this to be the last match of her career, assembling a ceremony after the match with a tribute video narrated by Oprah followed by an on-court interview by Gail King, neither of which ever happens in the first round of any tournament for any player, even a normal interview. 

Her first round win set up even more improbable odds for Serena, as she faced the number 2 player in the Open in the second round. If most people expected her to lose in the first round, almost everyone expected her second round matchup to be the last of her career. Going into the game, a certain kind of hope was floating through the air. With how she had been playing, Serena’s chances of beating the #2 player in the world were slim at best. And yet, there remained the hope that a magical glimpse of her former self would make an appearance. And did it ever.

We didn’t just get a glimpse of her former self, we got a whole match of it. Williams was playing with all the fervor and intensity of dominant days on the tour, and you could feel her passion and competitive drive pushing her on. The match was intense and close the whole way through. And though Kontaveit is 14 years younger and ranked second in the world, Serena edged her out for the three set victory.

Serena played with such intensity, power, and determination that each shot felt like a calculated and emotional endeavor. All match, the crowd was by her side, fighting with her. There was a specific urgency with which the match was played that I’ve never witnessed before. The knowledge that this could be her last time stepping out onto a tennis court after 26 years, combined with the never-fading drive to be the best produced an all time moment.

At the end of the match, when Serena once again shocked the tennis world, during another on-court ceremony, she was asked if she was surprised with her current play, to which she gave the interviewer a look and said: “I’m just Serena”. 

That night, she was every bit of her old self that drew so many millions to witness her historic career. Though she lost in a close match in the next round, she showed the fiery competitiveness that drove her to the top for so many years. She gave us a fitting last stand in an unforgettable upset win: the last of her career.

2. A miracle comeback to climb into the history books: Rafael Nadal vs. Daniil Medvedev, Australian Open Men’s Final: 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5

As a tennis fan, the Australian Open is the hardest grand slam to watch because of the huge time difference. Most matches take place far into the night or very early in the morning on the east coast. Each year, I’m never that invested, and usually end up watching highlights after the matches. 

In 2022, when the AO arrived in January, the historic race to reach the most men’s slams of all time was on everyone’s minds. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic were all tied for the most men’s slams ever, 20, and this tournament was a chance to break free. Djokovic was coming off a historic 2021 season, where he claimed 3 Grand Slams, and was just one match away from winning all 4. The Serbian wouldn’t get a chance to defend his crown, though, as he was denied entry into the country after lying about his vaccination status. Federer also didn’t compete among a string of injuries leading him to the end of his career. 

The planets were alligning for my favorite player, Rafael Nadal, to win the tournament. A win for Nadal would place him atop the mountain for the first time in his career and would be the first time Federer didn’t hold the most slams since 2009 when he passed Pete Sampras with 15. Winning the Open would also be especially meaningful for Nadal because he’d only won one time in his whole career, making the tournament the worst of the 4 slams by far for him. With no Djokovic in the draw, Rafa dominated early and made it past tough opponents in Shapovalov and Berretini to make it to the final. On the other side of the court, he faced Daniil Medvedev, who was coming off a US Open win against Djokovic.

I was excited at the prospect of witnessing my favorite player make history, so I set my alarm for 3 am to watch the final. Little did I know, I’d still be watching over five hours later. 

I can say with full confidence that this was the greatest tennis match I’ve ever seen. 

It began poorly for Rafa. Medvedev came out of the gate and met each of Nadal’s moves with a calculated counterattack. The Russian won the first set 6-2 without any drama. The second set was far more competitive, though. Through the back-and-forth play, Nadal broke Medvedev to serve for the second set, only to be broken right back, forcing a set-deciding tiebreak. Although it was close, Medvedev won again to go up two sets to zero. 

After losing the first two sets and then facing 3 break points early in the third, it looked like Rafa’s pattern of heartbreak in the Australian final would continue. Since winning the grand slam in 2009, Nadal had lost in the finals four times in a row, and barring a miracle, it was looking like that would become five.

At this point in the match, I felt foolish for waking up at 3 am thinking I might catch a glimpse of history. And even though Nadal is known for his inhuman stamina, persistence, and comeback abilities, he looked like a dead man walking early in the third set.

Then, with his back fully against the wall, the Spaniard barely broke, setting up a chance to serve for the third set. His dreams were kept alive as he punctuated his close third-set win with a forehand down the line and a scream to the crowd, a reminder that he hadn’t lost just yet. 

My hope that Nadal would capture an elusive second Australian Open title after a 14-year drought was floating in the back of my mind, but I never let it take hold of me for too long, lest I jinx his chances of pulling off an amazing comeback. As I watched him claw back from the dead, I felt like I was holding my breath for hours, suppressing all the wandering ‘what-ifs’ in my mind so as not to get my hopes up for something miraculous.

The fourth set was tense and you could feel the two players’ exhaustion through the TV after they had already been battling for three hours. Now, they both looked at the top of their game, and each point was fought tooth and nail. The crowd in Melbourne fed off the urgency and intensity of the play and cheered Nadal on, willing him forward. As Rafa had the heart of the crowd going into the match, and Medvedev is rarely the fan favorite, all of Rod Laver Arena seemed to form a wave of support behind the tennis legend. Once again, Nadal broke late in the set and pushed the final to a decisive fifth set.

Now, you could feel it.

As Nadal pumped his fist and walked to his bench, the whole stadium rose to their feet in applause and raucous cheers. Suddenly, I couldn’t suppress those wandering ‘what-ifs’ any longer. I already felt vindicated in waking up so early to see my favorite player, and the all-time-great comeback I was witnessing in the early morning on the American East Coast, and the late night in Australia was taking shape. Nadal looked utterly defeated after the second set, but by some miracle, the two players were dead even heading into the fifth.

It was four and a half hours since the match had begun and over five since I had crawled out of bed. As I watched the action playout, the windows around me went from pitch black to sunrise to full morning light. I hadn’t moved from my spot on the couch, though I did shift my position multiple times based on my stress level. I went from lying down to sitting up to leaning forward and clutching a pillow with both hands. 

Somehow, after hours of intense back-and-forth play, both players were at their peak performance. On each side of the court, there was a rising level of desperation and passion that drove them past their obvious exhaustion. This late in the match, they continued to serve up incredible rallies and game-saving shots. And, at 2-2, deep in the left corner of the court, with a break point in his favor, Nadal delivered a spectacular, curving forehand that landed right on the line, giving him the break and sending the crowd into hysteria. His signature shot had given us another classic moment.

But, the tennis gods clearly noticed my heart rate had started returning to normal, so they threw me yet another curveball. With Nadal serving for the match, Medvedev managed to barely break back, tying the fifth set at five games apiece. I could no longer handle the stress. The match had flung me around a mental and emotional rollercoaster, and it refused to stop. Running on fumes, Nadal mustered up yet another impossible break, and he would serve for the match again. 

Then, with a deep cross-court shot and a backhand volley, the match was over. The comeback was complete. I had seen a man return from the dead and do so in the most dramatic fashion possible. Rafa’s expression said it all as he clutched his face in his hands and took in the roars surrounding him. His smile from ear to ear was one of pure joy and relief after an eternity on the court. As he shook his head in disbelief, I lept up from my couch and jumped up and down. While it was hard to process the incredible mental, physical, emotional, and athletic feat that I had just witnessed, I immediately knew it was the greatest tennis match I had ever seen. 

The gravity of the moment for Nadal’s career was impossible to ignore. He had conquered the grand slam that evaded him the most in the greatest comeback of his career. He had won his second title in Australia, and more importantly, he had taken a decisive step above Federer and Djokovic in record books. With the win, Nadal climbed to 21 career grand slams, breaking the tie with his two rivals and cementing himself in tennis history. 

This match will linger in my mind for years to come.

1. Euphoria for Messi and Argentina: Argentina vs. France, World Cup Final: 3-3(4-2)

Suddenly, I was the loudest fan jumping up and down in the streets of Buenos Aires; I was the most emotional spectator crying in the stands of Lusail Stadium in Qatar; I was drawn in like no other game had in my entire life. The ups and downs, the passion, the songs and chants, the emotions, the intensity and desperation, the brilliance, the tears and screams, and of course the brilliant play: the final had it all, and I was flooded with emotions. 

Aside from the last World Cup, and the occasional game, this year’s World Cup was my entrance into the soccer world. I was immediately a fan. I knew some of the brilliance that the sport could elicit, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what the tournament would bring. From the first group stage match, I was thrown into the sport like a horse and buggy turning onto the highway. 

This event made me realize how insignificant our American sports are compared to this international sensation; we think the Super Bowl is important with 100 million views when the World Cup final brought in over 4 billion. 

Literally half of the world tuned in on Sunday, December 18t as history unfolded, and I can honestly say I was more stressed out for the duration of this game than any other all year. Even the historic Duke/UNC final four matchup, where my favorite team of all time suffered a historically embarrassing and heart crushing loss to our arch-rivals didn’t elicit the same emotions out of me. 

I’m not totally sure what pulled me in so intensely, but ever since their group stage loss to Saudi Arabia, I became completely infatuated with the Argentina team and Lionel Messi. Messi spoke to me on a spiritual level, and his story in this final World Cup of his career was incredibly compelling. Their passionate and gutsy win against the Netherlands followed by their thumping of Croatia, propelled me into the final with huge anticipation for my newfound heroes. Sitting down on the couch for kickoff, I could feel the emotions and significance of the World Cup for the players, for their countries, and for billions around the globe. That, along with the historic weight of the final for Argentina and Messi set up the game in a towering fashion. 

I was so excited right when the first whistle blew, and the players leaped into action. Like many, the range of emotions I felt in this game would be hard to describe through mortal words, but I’m going to try. 

The first half was absolute joy. 

Messi’s penalty brought screams, high fives, fist pumps, and nearly tears of joy for the 5’ 7” miracle worker. Then, in what unfolded into the most beautiful attack of the tournament, Messi’s brilliant pass up the line led to Mac Allister’s perfectly timed assist to Di Maria. It was a dream half for the Argentines and a miserable one for the French. You could see the discouragement painted all over the faces of the French players as they left the field down 2-0.

Up until the 78th minute, everything was going perfectly for Argentina. In the first half, France’s young star, Kylian Mbappe, who usually looks energetic and pumped up, looked dejected and frustrated with his team’s lack of cohesion. In that fateful 79th minute though, the entire match flipped on its head. After a trip in the box, there was a penalty called for France, and as Mbappe fired the ball just past the outstretched hands of the Argentine keeper, Emi Martinez, I sank to the ground and slammed my hand against the table next to me. In that one moment, you could see every player’s demeanor shift drastically. 

Suddenly Mbappe had life, and the Argentinians’ confidence totally disappeared. In one moment, Argentina went from looking confident and ready to close out the final, to looking terrified of the young Frenchman who had just cut their lead in half. With that newfound fear planted in the Argentinian team’s psyche, it wasn’t more than two minutes later for Mbappe to strike again, not on a penalty this time but on a brilliant volley from the outside of the box to the opposite corner of the goal. In two minutes, Argentina’s comfortable 2-0 lead and all their confidence were completely erased. 

My head was stuffed in a pillow. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t bear to watch what had fallen apart so fast. 

The next 10 minutes were terrifying for Argentinian fans around the world. Their lead was suddenly gone, and they were playing with desperation to just survive until extra time. 

The French, however, were in full attack mode and got close multiple times to making it three goals in a row. It was a near-godly strike by Messi in stoppage time, though, that leveled the playing field in terms of Argentina’s confidence. Number 10 in blue and white got the ball outside the box in front of the French goal, and struck it beautifully, right underneath the goalpost. It would have possibly been the greatest goal in the sport’s history had it not been saved brilliantly with one hand by the French keeper, Hugo Lloris. Even though he didn’t score, this was a swift boost of confidence for Argentina, and led both teams into extra time, equal at 2 a piece, and what seemed like equal chances to walk away with the trophy. 

The first half of extra time brought a plethora of squandered opportunities for each team. Multiple times I leaped out of my seat just to groan and slump back down when a shot went wide or was deflected. 

This was the peak of my stress. I found myself grabbing onto different objects in the room and pulling my jacket over my eyes when the pressure became too unbearable to watch. 

Then, an attack in the 109th minute of the game brought me to my feet for good. When Messi tapped the ball into the goal after a deflection from the goalkeeper, I leaped up and started jumping and yelling. And after it was confirmed that the ball did indeed cross the goal line, and no one was offside, I couldn’t control my joy and danced around the room in pure jubilation. 

If you’ve made it this far, though, you know Argentina wouldn’t keep their lead for long.  And of course, the soccer gods couldn’t give me 10 minutes of peace. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. With a strike inside the box that hit an Argentinian player’s arm, the 116th minute brought a third France penalty for their young star. I could barely watch as the ball was buried into the back of the net, and number 7 in blue grabbed his hat trick.

Mbappe had crushed my soul once again. 

As the extra time reached its conclusion tied at 3-3, just as regular time ended at 2-2, Mbappe’s penalty felt like some sort of sick deja vu. Despite the agony he had put me through, I couldn’t help but be in total awe of his performance which had single-handedly revived the French team.

Then, with 19 seconds left in the stoppage time in the second half of extra time, a French pass from midfield lifted the ball over French and Argentinian heads alike, leaving only Martinez in the way of a last-minute game-winning goal for France. My heart stopped for what seemed like the hundredth time since kickoff. With a ridiculous block with his outstretched leg, Martinez was the hero once again, capping off the game in the 123rd minute with a once-in-a-lifetime save.  

And just like that, there was no more soccer to be played. Only penalty kicks stood in the way of back-to-back World Cups for France and redemption for Argentina. For the French, a win would mean solidifying themself as one of the most dominant teams in recent memory, and it would place Mbappe among the greats as a 24-year-old with 2 World Cups, and a hat-trick in the final that dragged his team to victory. Standing on the other side of the field, for the Argentinians, a win would mean their first World Cup since 1986 when Maradonna led them to the trophy. And, of course, the stakes were no higher than for Lionel Messi. For Messi, a World Cup would check off the last box to complete his illustrious career. A win would mean climbing to the peak of greatness, emerging from Madonna’s shadow in the eyes of many Argentinian fans, and conquering the tournament that evaded him for so long. He had reached the final 8 years before but came up just short of victory. For many, this accomplishment was the last he needed to be solidified as the greatest footballer of all time. So you could say the stakes were high going into penalties.

My heart was racing along with billions of others watching around the world. I could barely watch, and yet I couldn’t turn away. 

Naturally, Mbappe stepped up to take the first penalty, and despite Martinez’s outstretched hand making contact with the ball, it was still buried in the top left of the goal. 

1-0 France.

Who else but Messi could step up first for Argentina? The 5’7” striker calmly walked forward like so many times before to take the penalty. With his legacy on the line, he adjusted the ball and stared down the French keeper just 12 yards away. He paused for a split-second and then decisively kicked it to the left, just passed Lloris’ outstretched hands. 


Next, Kingsley Coman stepped up the ball, facing a taunting Martinez who bounced up and down and side to side in an attempt to throw Coman off. Martinez’s mind games would persist until the last minute. With a leap to the left, the Argentine keeper guessed correctly and absorbed the ball with his chest and arms, leaping off the ground and punching his fists to the skies. Then, the younger Martinez stepped up to the ball and buried it down the middle. I leapt off my couch just as Emi had jumped off the ground: each of us in celebration: each of us in awe.

2-1 Argentina.

Martinez’s antics continued, this time though, the French seemed more nervous, more susceptible to his taunts and attempts to get in their heads. Aurélien Tchouaméni stood 12 yards away for France. Once again, Martinez dove in the right direction, and once again he celebrated with a dance. But he didn’t have to block it this time, as Tchouaméni’s kick flew wide of the goal, and a look of terror was plastered on the faces of the French team. Then, as Paredes’ penalty just barely passed by Lloris’ outstretched arms and soared into the back of the net, the reality was setting in for France. 

3-1 Argentina.

Still, a moment of hope and even redemption remained as French forward Randal Kolo Muani stood between Argentina and their first World Cup in 36 years. There was extra pressure on Kolo Mauni as he had a golden chance just minutes earlier when he was one-on-one with Martinez in the final minute of stoppage time before penalties, but couldn’t score. Temporary redemption was found and hope stayed alive for France as he buried his kick right down the middle at the top of the goal.

3-2 Argentina.

With all the pressure in the world resting on his shoulders, 25-year-old Gonzalo Montiel stepped up to make history. He adjusted the ball on its position placed just 12 yards from the goalline as 4 billion watched around the globe. And, with a decisive boot to the left as Lloris dove to the right, Lusail Stadium crescendoed in screams, cries, and utter joy as Argentina won the World Cup.

Players in white and blue stripes hugged each other and raised their fists to the air as fans in the same colors screamed with delight. French players stood opposite them in pure shock and disbelief. 

And, the man everyone was looking at all tournament long, anticipating the end of his World Cup career, fell to his knees with a look of happiness and relief on his face. Messi had captured the tournament which eluded him for the longest time. He had captured the hearts of billions, recaptured the love of Argentinians alike, and he had captured my attention and passion. I was drawn into the World Cup swiftly, and it didn’t soon let me go. The intensity and emotion I felt during this final were like in no other sporting event I have ever witnessed. I can confidently say this was the greatest game I have ever seen, and I just feel so lucky to have witnessed a slice of history.

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