For one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds, Angel Di Maria was the best player in the world.
This was the same day that 35-year-old Lionel Messi would kiss the World Cup trophy to seal his place as the greatest footballer of all time, and his historic performance would deserve it. Kylian Mbappe, the outstanding player of the tournament, would score three goals after the 80th minute and leave not even a baguette crumb of doubt who will take over when Messi is gone.
But for the first hour of the match, the big names were second best. It was Argentina’s other ageing winger, not Messi, who drew the first penalty and scored the second goal, taking his team to a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. The game ran through him like a high-voltage current. France couldn’t escape this thin, slippery electric eel of a man.
It was, without a doubt, the Angel Di Maria final.
And then he came off.
Maybe that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Of all Di Maria’s prodigious gifts, his biggest seems to be staying underappreciated.
He’s sort of tough to pin down, to be fair. His smouldering coal eyes, razor cheekbones and elfin ears jutting out of an impossibly tall face make him look like an El Greco study of Franz Kafka, and his game is just as weird and brilliant as that might lead you to hope. He’s an odd sort of star in that he has somehow never really been a star at all.
For one thing, he doesn’t have a position. Or he has three of them. Over the past 15 years, Di Maria has played both wings and attacking midfield for some of the best teams in the world and looked natural wherever his side needed him.
At the start of this World Cup, just like he had in Argentina’s qualifying campaign, Di Maria lined up to Messi’s right. The wide threat kept defences honest. Try to crowd Messi in the right half-space and Di Maria would slip in behind and beat you up the wing. Try to track Di Maria and Messi would shake free between the lines.
It had been working for them for the past year or so. Di Maria was playing right wing when he squirted behind Brazil’s back line and scored the lone goal in last year’s Copa America final, winning Argentina the first senior international trophy of Messi’s career.
But at this World Cup, playing on the right felt like a waste of Di Maria’s talents.
Messi, a heavily left-footed playmaker, likes to dribble from right to left and look for killer diagonals to the opposite wing.
When the left midfielder Giovani Lo Celso was fit, he could run onto those balls while Di Maria stayed on the right. But when Lo Celso tore a hamstring a few weeks before the tournament, Lionel Scaloni never really replaced him. Argentina played without a left winger, even when Messi clearly could have used one, even when Di Maria was right there.
Against France in the World Cup final, that finally changed. Di Maria switched to the left wing and Argentina — who had sleepwalked through most of the tournament like a pick-up side that might get around to being good whenever they’d had a little more yerba mate — switched on.
For over an hour, they were untouchable.
It was obvious right away what the team had been missing. In the 12th minute, when Messi dribbled to his left to look for a pass, he didn’t have to wait for his left-back to sprint up an empty wing. Di Maria was already high and wide to receive a diagonal behind the defence.
Di Maria knew exactly what he was supposed to do next. He’s been playing with Messi since 2008 (the year he ran onto a Messi pass to score the goal that won Argentina an Olympic gold medal).
Without thinking about it, he settled the ball on his left foot, waited a beat for Messi’s favourite late-arriving run, then clipped a pass to the penalty spot. Only a sliding clearance by Aurelien Tchouameni saved it from becoming a signature Messi goal.
Two minutes later, when a Di Maria dribble drew half of France to his wing, Messi waved for the ball in the middle of the pitch and waited calmly while Di Maria shimmied around Adrien Rabiot and flipped a pass between two defenders with the outside of his boot.
Again, Di Maria knew instinctively what would happen next, so he spun around and sprinted into the box, where he might have been in on goal if Messi hadn’t misplaced the return pass.
Pretty soon Argentina were flinging almost anything to the left wing, trusting Di Maria to figure it out.
At one point Messi drove up the middle and used his forgotten right foot to lob a ball in Di Maria’s general direction, which is about as high a compliment as he can give a pass receiver. Another time he tried to use his right to flick a chest-high ball backwards over his shoulder, no-look, to put Di Maria in behind. (Okay, fine, that is as trusting as Messi gets.)
The “screw it, Di Maria’s over there somewhere” tactic is how Julian Alvarez helped set up Argentina’s first goal…
Ousmane Dembele fouled Angel Di Maria as Lionel Messi gave Argentina the lead from the penalty spot ?
Was it the right decision? ?#BBCFootball #BBCWorldCup pic.twitter.com/SIvVmTDQLe
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
… and, with a little more planning, their second…
A goal of supreme quality from Argentina ??? pic.twitter.com/BwixLkURWV
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
UNREAL team goal ?
Argentina are 2-0 up!! That pass to Angel Di Maria ?#BBCWorldCup #FifaWorldCup pic.twitter.com/p7HcEgTcnt
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 18, 2022
But it wasn’t just Di Maria’s brilliance on the ball that made him so essential. Playing with a true left winger reshaped the team and allowed Alexis Mac Allister to sparkle between the lines as a left attacking midfielder.
When he wasn’t dribbling circles around Jules Kounde, Di Maria threw himself into cutting off the right-back’s passing lanes. That freed Mac Allister behind him to mark Antoine Griezmann, whose floating midfield role had been key to France’s success all tournament.
Without those two players, France were pure Jacques Tati slapstick on the ball. They crawled past the hour mark without a single shot, the second-worst start of any team at this World Cup (only Costa Rica, who didn’t shoot at all in their 7-0 humiliation by Spain, had a longer dry spell).
But just when Argentina looked like they were cruising to the trophy, Scaloni made a near-fatal mistake.
One hour, three minutes and 52 seconds into the match, Di Maria came off the pitch.
The next hour was a different game entirely.
Subbing off a tired 34-year-old left winger so that defender Marcos Acuna could shore up left midfield might have looked like a smart game-management move on paper, but it threw Argentina into disarray.
Take the sequence before France’s first goal. Mac Allister fought his way through midfield with an opponent on his back. Fifteen minutes earlier, he probably would have looked for an outlet pass to Di Maria on the wing, but Acuna was hanging back at the halfway line, behind the ball. There was no passing outlet and no way forward.
Without a good possession structure on the left, Argentina got trapped against the right sideline instead. France won the ball on that side, broke quickly and scored.
Less than two minutes later, Messi ran into a similar problem. He dribbled to the left under heavy pressure and looked to release the ball up the wing. This time Acuna was upfield but too narrow, not offering Messi a passing option he trusted. With no Di Maria to lob the ball to, Messi got caught in possession and France scored again to send the game to extra time.
It wasn’t just a few uncomfortable moments. The switch to a flat 4-4-2 changed the way Argentina worked in possession — or, more often, didn’t work at all. Messi’s favourite diagonals completely dried up.
When Messi would cut inside and look out to the left wing, he would see Acuna running to catch up to the play. By the time he did, it was usually too late.
What was supposed to be a defensive substitution wound up having the opposite effect. With Argentina suddenly uncomfortable on the ball, France found their rhythm and started getting forward. A game that had been completely one-sided became anything but.
As for Di Maria, he was left trying to will his team on from the sideline. When Messi scored in extra time, there was Di Maria, sprinting off the bench to celebrate with him in his training bib.
When Mbappe equalised again to send the game to penalties, the camera showed Di Maria sobbing into his shirt.
This wasn’t the first time he’d had to watch from the sideline with the World Cup on the line. In 2014, he tore a muscle in the quarter-finals and missed the end of Argentina’s tournament. “I just want to win the World Cup,” he begged his coaches back then, insisting painkillers would get him through the final. “If you call on me, I will play until I break.”
There’s no question he would have done the same even now, at 34. Scaloni must have wished he had let him. But this time, by the grace of Don Diego and La Tota, Argentina didn’t need him.
One hour, three minutes and 52 seconds of Di Maria as the best player on the pitch — and a lifetime of Messi, the greatest ever to do it — were enough to win the World Cup.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)