The Longshot: Exciting finale is what we deserve this Sunday

The World Cup decider is being billed as Messi v Mbappe, but other storylines often intrude in such fixtures
The Longshot: Exciting finale is what we deserve this Sunday

PSG teammates Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe will face off in the World Cup final on Sunday as top scorers in the tournament so far.

BACK in 1995, when my teenage evenings were more Home and Away than homework, I found myself alarmed by a glaring lack of realism being broadcast from Summer Bay. It wasn’t a main character suddenly turning around and being played by a different actor. Or one of the implausible storylines, like a wombat driving a car off a pier. 

No, it involved a young man named Shane, who was portrayed by the now sadly deceased Dieter Brummer, a name more suited to an East German full-back from the early 80s.

Shane’s interest in and aptitude for football was actually often alluded to on the show, but I don’t think we ever saw him kick a ball.

But this evening on the show, stalwart cast member Alf Stewart walked into his sitting room only to see Shane perched on the edge of the couch, mesmerised by the telly.

Alf says to Shane: “Strewth! You’re not watching that bloody game again are you?”

To which Shane replies: It’s the World Cup final Alf!” He continues to watch in a poorly acted, excited way, and it is established that this is a recording of the game, and Shane has watched it many times. 

The 1994 World Cup final. Possibly the most boring big game of international football of all time, or at least since the decider four years previous to it.

All of which is to say, World Cup finals are often a bit of a letdown, unless you’re a fictional character in an Aussie soap.

France and Croatia bucked the trend in Moscow. The 2014 and 2010 finals were damp squibs decided by golden goals. Berlin in 2006 is remembered for an audacious panenka and the headbutt, but sticks out most in my mind because I missed three lifts home from the Munster final in Killarney when it went to penalties.

I was in Yokohama in 2002, but couldn’t afford a ticket the scalpers were selling outside the ground. That final lost some of it’s lustre when Michael Ballack was ruled out because of a booking in the semi against Korea.

The Tour de France passed through Midleton the same day as the 1998 final, so I watched it armed with a small tricolour that race organisers had handed out. However, Ronaldo not being at full throttle after a seizure earlier in the day meant it was a bit of a travesty. Zidane at least used his noggin more wisely that day, getting only the second and third headed goals of his career to set up a maiden French win.

So should we have high hopes for Sunday? I think so. The bookies cannot separate the two sides, with both quoted at evens for a third crown.

We also have two players in contention for a Golden Ball/Golden Boot (with Alvarez and Giroud just behind them). Only once in a World Cup has a player won the Golden Ball, the Golden Boot and lifted the cup: Paulo Rossi in 1982. Messi leads Mbappe in the scoring contest. It used to go down to who has scored the least penalty kicks, but for this tournament, a tiebreaker is decided on assists and then least minutes on the field (less time to score I suppose). Mbappe’s pass for Randal Kolo Muani’s goal on Wednesday was ruled as a deflection by Fifa, so he remains one assist behind Messi, with both on five goals each, but with fewer minutes played.

My most fervent wish for the game is Messi’s hamstring holds up and we don’t seem carted off early, a la Cristiano Ronaldo at the Euro 2016 final.

But something extraordinary may happen. Who would have thought 2006 would have been the Marco Materazzi final? A sub coming into the tournament, he in the game he managed to give away a penalty, almost score an own goal, score an equaliser, have his chest indented by the player of the tournament’s head, and then score in the shootout.

What of previous match-ups between France and Argentina?

France won 4-3 four years ago in their second-round clash, a score that flattered Argentina. The South Americans look a different animal now. (Sidenote: Alf Ramsey labelled them “animals” when England beat them on the way to glory in 1966, yet footage of the game and stats show England committed a lot more fouls than Argentina in a fortunate 1-0 win).

As hosts in 1978, Argentina were at the centre of several allegations, not least that their military junta bribed other teams. They were lucky to beat France in the group stages, getting a penalty for handball when the ball hit a defender using his hand to break his fall to the ground, similar to the Uruguay’s Jose Gimenez in the game against Portugal in Qatar.

Stories also emerged that Argentine players were so high on amphetamines they had to run around for hours after games to feel normal again, with French radio subsequently speaking to witnesses who claimed they saw blue pills being handed out before games. This was always denied, but a drug test after one game showing that one of their players was pregnant suggests something may have been amiss.

Their first-ever clash occurred at the first World Cup in 1930, a group stage game Argentina won 1-0 thanks to Luis Felipe Monti. 

Monti was their star player but faced death threats from within his own country and from the hosts and eventual winners Uruguay before the final.

At half-time in the decider, when Argentina were leading 2-1, he later claimed he was told “my grandmother and my aunt would be killed” if they won. They eventually lost 4-2, with Monti unsurprisingly less of an influence after the break.

That game, called the ‘Battle of River Plate’ saw different-sized balls used in each half, following a disagreement between the two FAs. And half of Argentina’s fans never made it to the game, as they were stuck on boats floating in the fog on the River Plate, unable to cross from Buenos Aires.

Four years later, Monti would win a World Cup with Italy, the only player to play in different tournaments with different countries.

Ballygunner dig will add edge to semi

THE club hurling game of the year will clash with the World Cup final this Sunday, recalling the GAA’s decision to have Galway and Kerry play in the Super 8s at the same time as the 2018 decider.

Even rugby chiefs decided this was a no-no and shifted their Champions Cup fixtures away from 3pm.

But Gaelic Games officials dance to a different beat, don’t we know.

Ballyhale Shamrocks (or Shamrocks Ballyhale as they seem to be calling themselves now) and Ballygunner’s All-Ireland semi-final could have expected a big crowd at Croke Park and a sizeable TV audience, especially as these two giants of the club scene served up such cracking fare last year.

The split season has magnified the importance of the club game but pitting the marquee clash of the season against the biggest game in world football is a step backwards you’d think.

There is spice too with the Kilkenny men taking umbrage at their Waterford neighbours following the injury-time goal that denied them a first club hurling three-in-a-row.

In the speech afterwards Ballygunner captain Barry Coughlan was effusive in his praise of their vanquished foe, but somewhat innocuously added “we robbed it today, you know. I suppose ye have done that to other teams so I suppose it goes around, it comes around.” Those words did not go down well in Kilkenny.

Colin Fennelly has said: “It’s not something you want to hear. You want that little bit of respect.” Ballygunner are 4/5 while Ballyhale are 5/4 and the draw is 8/1. In the first semi, St Thomas of Galway are 1/4 to beat Antrim’s Dunloy (7/2), who are aiming to be only the second Ulster team to reach the final since 2004.

La Rochelle can deliver after Toulouse fall short

OUR tip last week for Toulouse to win by 6-10 pints at Thomond Park was of course scuppered when they emerged five-point winners.

However, with the new forgiving format, even an opening home loss does not spell disaster for Munster. In fact, defeat to Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens at lunchtime on Sunday is not an eliminator.

Last season Clermont emerged from Pool A with eight points, after winning only one game, while in Pool B three teams managed the feat with a single victory, with Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Stade Francais all getting through with eight, eight, and seven points respectively.

If Munster are harbouring ambitions of securing a home draw in the last 16 they probably need to win all three of their remaining games,  as no team finished in the top four in their pool last year with less than three wins.

A defeat for the Reds looks a less-likely scenario after Northampton were battered by Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle in their opening game of the Champions Cup in the famous Atlantic port city, so they will come in at a lower ebb than Graham Rowntree’s men.

The Saints found themselves trailing by 46-0 in the second half, although they did rally a small bit to make it 46-12 while the French eased up.

Munster put it up to one of the strongest sides in the competition in the freezing fog last Saturday, and although they did secure a losing bonus point late on, they never really looked like they had Toulouse’s number, even when Antoine Dupont had to sit out for 10 minutes near the end.

They are favourites to secure the away win, coming in at 8/13, while Northampton are 11/8 underdogs.

Ulster crashed to 39-0 defeat in Sale, one of the worst defeats for an Irish club side in many years. They host La Rochelle at teatime tomorrow, who are even money to win with a minus-five point start.

We were caught last week predicting a similar French win but think O’Gara’s reigning champs can beat that spread.

David Clifford is 6/1 to become the first Gaelic footballer to win Irish sportsperson of the year. He has scored 20-169 in 2022 and won six trophies for club, division and county. 
David Clifford is 6/1 to become the first Gaelic footballer to win Irish sportsperson of the year. He has scored 20-169 in 2022 and won six trophies for club, division and county. 

The Bet

WE’RE all in on Argentina for Sunday’s game with previous recommendations so we’ll look elsewhere. The RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year award will be presented tomorrow.

Katie Taylor is 1/6 favourite, but having won twice before (most recently in 2020), the decision may go elsewhere. Although Sonia O’Sullivan did win five times!

Curiously, no Gaelic footballer has won since it began in 1985. Only two hurlers have, compared to 11 golfers.David Clifford has been having quite a year, first with Kerry and now with club Fossa. He may be in with a shout at 6/1.

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