Editor’s Note: Amy Bass is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
American sports fans, if you don’t love soccer now (and yes, you can call it that — this whole “football versus soccer” thing is just stupid and unbecoming to global society), there might be no hope for you.
Argentina’s shootout victory over defending champion France in the men’s World Cup final on Sunday at Lusail Stadium in Qatar was a showdown between two of the most powerful soccer cultures in the world. And it didn’t just deliver: It created possibly the greatest championship game in the history of sport.
The World Cup is coming to North America in 2026, so even if you missed Sunday’s clash of the soccer titans, you have four years to get up to speed on why this epic match serves as an exemplar of soccer’s greatness and its power to galvanize a truly global conversation about sport as a vehicle to inspire and transform.
Even before the first touch, the most obvious narratives of this final had already been written. It had been reduced by many as Lionel Messi versus Kylian Mbappé, positioning the teammates at Paris St-Germain (owned by Qatar Sports Investments) as the GOAT and the heir apparent — with Messi likely in his last dance, while Mbappé, already a champion four years ago when he was just 19, has so much more ahead.
For most of the match, it looked like Messi would grab the one thing missing from his illustrious career, almost casually scoring on a penalty kick just 20 minutes in. As France looked to have almost no control over play, a second goal for Argentina soon followed, a Messi touch on transition building a beautiful sequence — deemed by bestselling writer and soccer nut John Green “one of the greatest works of art our species has ever created” — that allowed Ángel Di María to get the ball inside the net.
But France, or at least Mbappé, was not done — he became the first men’s player since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966 to score a hat trick in a World Cup final — three goals by one player in a single game — even if France came up short.
And yet as thrilling as this final was, it is not the only story of this World Cup, a tournament that was as much about what comes next as it was about Messi. In the minutes before the start of the final, all of the juxtapositions, contradictions and incongruities that surrounded this tournament should have been exhausted but rather took one last spin, with the recorded voice of LGBTQ icon Freddie Mercury (who died of complications from AIDS in 1991) riling up the pregame crowd in a country known to squash LGBTQ campaigns.
Indeed, it bears repeating that there has been a lot to this World Cup that has not been beautiful, including the thousands of migrant workers who are reported by The Guardian to have died while transforming a country with little soccer culture into a land of air-conditioned stadiums. (Qatar’s World Cup chief in a British TV interview admitted to much lower but still sobering 400 to 500 deaths of migrants who readied the Gulf nation for the event.)
Yet there was beauty to be found in this controversial and grief-diminished World Cup, particularly the story of Morocco. The run of the Atlas Lions, whose trip to the semifinals against France made it a first and only on many levels as they marched through what felt like a master class in post-colonial history — Belgium, Spain, Portugal — to inspire an enduring Pan-Arab spirit.
Just as Croatia announced itself to the world four years ago, Morocco, too, is just getting started, the nation’s investment in soccer bearing fruit lush and deep. While Morocco fell to Croatia in Saturday’s match for third place, in a multitude of ways this was its tournament, its fans flocking to Qatar in such numbers that Qatar Airways canceled flights the morning of its semifinal match, hoping to curb the overwhelming surge.
Yet if Morocco was the team of the tournament, Messi was its towering figure, his merch becoming more scarce than Taylor Swift tickets, crashing Adidas stores worldwide. His global superstardom helped soccer stay center stage amid all the chaos that has surrounded this Qatar World Cup for the last 12 years.
Not quite ready to be in the sport’s rearview mirror, he solidified foundations for what a generational international soccer star can look, play and be like, including his impending retirement. “Through it all, Lionel Messi has defied the machismo in Argentine football in his own gentle way,” historian Brenda Elsey recently observed in The New York Times. “Football stadiums are part of a sexist ecosystem where displays of misogyny and homophobia are commonplace; organized fans called ‘barras bravas’ have created terrifying conditions during matches. Messi has rejected this violence. …”
Such positioning of Messi comes just in time for next year when the World Cup heads down under to New Zealand and Australia for the women’s championship, with early tickets sales already making headlines.
While the US men’s team performed admirably in Qatar, making it to the knockout round after failing to qualify four years ago and bringing home the first World Cup paycheck under US Soccer’s new collective bargaining agreement centered on equal pay, the American women will be looking to defend a title, having defeated the Dutch in 2019 for their fourth World Cup crown.
But increasing global interest in the women’s game means it will not be easy for the American women to stay on top, as their dynasty faces worthy challengers from a range of squads, including former champions Japan, Germany and Norway as well as Sweden, Brazil and China.
Their success is key in continuing to shift America’s notorious apathy toward the beautiful game. Despite soccer consistently building television ratings, merchandise and ticket sales, American disdain for it remains a real thing, keeping the sport outside the realm of the “big three” — football, baseball, basketball — despite the thousands of children who hit the pitch every weekend, spring and fall, the growing Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer League crowds, and the devout fan base of “Ted Lasso.”
Accusations that soccer is tedious, the behavior of “flopping” players is ludicrous, the timekeeping is bewildering, and that the offside rule makes no sense create a divide between those who think soccer has finally arrived in the United States and those who claim it has not and never will.
That it is the relative low score of soccer games that seems to be the chief complaint of many (especially those who ignore the math that goes into an American football game) demonstrates a gap of understanding of soccer that remains in the United States. The scores are low because, well, soccer is hard — a fluid game played across an enormous expanse of green space whose players maneuver a small ball with grace, patience and power while running and moving nearly constantly for miles.
It is critical for Americans to wrap their collective heads around this, not just to cheer on the US women next year, but also because, again, in just four years’ time, the men’s World Cup is coming to 16 cities across North America. The United States will host most of the matches, with cities in Canada and Mexico also playing host.
The microscope that has been put on Qatar, its people and its politics, with detailed and valid conversations about sport washing and greenwashing, will shift to the United States, where issues of reproductive health restrictions, carbon footprint and the world’s overwhelming lead body count from gun violence will be in tension with liberties such as the recent reinforcements around same-sex and interracial marriage — a symbol of how messy and chaotic the home of the free, the land of the brave, can be.
And whether it is called soccer or football (and really, again, it can be both), one thing is clear, regardless of what England’s fans might be chanting: No one will be bringing anything home. After the 2022 World Cup, it is clearer now than perhaps ever before that the world — the whole world — is the home of its most popular game. So, Americans — whether watching the women next year or the men in 2026 — better get ready. They don’t have to like it. But they should understand it. And it won’t be easy. Because soccer is hard.